On December 30, 2003, Joan Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne, suffered a massive heart attack and died in her living room. Her only daughter, Quintana, was hospitalized at the time, and several weeks after her apparent recovery, she was once again rushed to the hospital for treatment of a potentially fatal hematoma. She showed signs of recovery, but died in August of 2005. Out of these events, Joan Didion has crafted her memoir of grief, The Year of Magical Thinking.
As in her famous essay "The White Album," which dealt with her own mental breakdown in the context of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, Didion applies steady, relentless, dispassionate prose to an agony past imagining.
The tension between fire and ice in her writing is, as always, captivating. The book seems at once more crafted and more spontaneous than her previous efforts. The narrative folds back on itself, cutting back and forth through time, repeating key incidents; a careless reader can get lost in this, or in Didion's insistence on reporting the technical and medical facts of Quintana's illness and John's death. But the book flows with the momentum of grief, and one gets the sense that Didion is concentrating on the details in order to keep the narrative from spiraling out of control.
The subject of the book is Didion's family, and Didion's grief, but not, remarkably, Didion; although she raises "the question of self-pity" early on, the book is cool and sharp as cut glass, and the prose bears no trace of narcissism. The self in this book is undeniably specific, yet also universal, a vessel for human experience: the irreparable absence caused by death, the derangement of grief, and the inability to accept, or even comprehend, sudden and permanent loss. The book frequently pulls in texts and events from the outside world -- from Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia" to the tsunami that devastated large portions of the Indian Ocean's coastline -- to illuminate the private family drama at its core. Didion returns again and again to the fragility of "normal," and the fact that we are, at all times, only a step away from death. In regard to that point, her story has relevance to us all. - Sady O
Ms. Sady O. is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic. She also writes the Brain Porn Culture Blog.