Power of Thinking

Joan Didion's essays on the culture of the 1960s and its aftermath in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album helped define what's now widely known as literary journalism. She also showed how the personal and political can be wed in ways that transcend the famous feminist platitude. Her latest effort, however, is exclusively personal. The Year of Magical Thinking is a meditation on grief that's surprisingly free of morbidity. In late December 2003, Didion's husband of 40 years, the screenwriter and novelist John Gregory Dunne, slumped over in his chair and died of a heart attack.

Didion opens her book with a stanza she repeats throughout: "Life changes fast./Life changes in an instant./You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends./The question of self pity." For readers, the question is how was the self-pity scrubbed from this book? "I started writing it, but it didn't feel like writing," Didion told The New York Times. "It felt just like sitting there and putting down what was on my mind, which is not the way I write."

Didion's first year alone wasn't reserved for mourning, as it had the unenviable distraction of her daughter's increasingly serious illness. Nevertheless, she manages to convey how grief can border on insanity. In her case, it centers on two impulses that are at once irrational and intuitive. First is the idea that affirming her husband's death was akin to betrayal. She can't remove his voice from the answering machine message; forget donating his clothes. Her fear was not what would happen if she accepted his death, but that doing so would foreclose on the possibility of his return.

What's so interesting about The Year of Magical Thinking is that it offers no magical answers. Didion deploys everyone from Freud to Auden to medical texts in an effort to comprehend her loss, but nothing bails her out. What's left are her small steps: hosting Christmas Eve dinner, reusing a special set of dishes, plodding on to meet deadlines. It's hard for discerning readers to ignore the fact that shortly before this book's publication, Didion's only daughter Quintana died of a brain condition that had plagued her for two years. Life as she knew it has ended twice now. The question of self-pity indeed.

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John Dicker