Big Readers Forum Index

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Post new topic   Reply to topic    Big Readers Forum Index -> What non-fiction are you reading?
View previous topic :: View next topic  
Author Message

Joined: 22 Nov 2008
Posts: 2998

Location: Owaka, New Zealand

PostPosted: Tue Jul 16, 2013 8:30 am    Post subject: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion  Reply with quote

“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”  This is on the cover of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and it is repeated several times in the book.  Joan’s husband John Gregory Dunne, also a renowned writer, died suddenly of a cardiac arrest and Joan tries to make sense of this, mostly by a semi-refusal to admit the truth of its permanence.  Not, of course, obviously – she knows he is dead, but her grief at his death means she spends the following year not truly accepting the reality of it, keeping his shoes so they will be there when he returns, not wanting to get rid of anything of his that has meaning for her, not able to go to the places they have been together.

The passages of the writer analysing grief and what it means and does are full of interesting thoughtful comments written with insight and often beauty.  Before her husband’s death and after it, she has to cope with her daughter’s serious illness  (which I have read on the internet lead to her death not long after the book was published and when she was just in her mid-30s), and these passages seem to me weaker, though they still follow through the ideas of grieving and ‘the vortex’ – those thumping feelings when Joan recognises yet another memory of her husband or daughter.  There is a lot in this middle part about hospital treatment, streets and places, often in rather prosaic detail.  

I was thinking of Himadri’s ‘elegant writing’ when I was reading this, and in the first part could see an elegance, though not a flowery elegance.  But hospital details and some phrases which seemed to me very ordinary  - of course, I don’t like the word gotten, but even if I substitute ‘got’ for it, sentences dependent on ‘got’ don’t read elegantly.  Some of the elegance of the beginning and ending pages are due to her quoting poets – a bit of Gerald Manley Hopkins helps a lot – but her own style has a sparse sort of beauty to it.  And her unsentimental style certainly helps with clarity of thought and ideas.  In fact there is a whole chapter that I intend to photocopy because I found it so moving and thoughtful, and feel it might help me if I ever need it.  In this chapter she begins by saying how grief is different from what we expect. “We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock,  We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes...”She then goes on to talk about meaningless (and by extension meaning) which she thought about a lot as a child, and found in geology ‘in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end”, and in the ‘repeated rituals of domestic life’. She then talks of self-pity which I found one of the most telling parts of the book, perhaps because I am someone who sometimes enjoys a bit of self-pity.  “People in grief think a great deal about self-pity.  We worry it, dread it, scourge out thinking for signs of it. We feel that our actions will reveal the condition tellingly described as ‘dwelling on it’...visible mourning reminds us of death, which is construed as unnatural, a failure to manage the situation.  ‘A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty,’ Philippe Ariès wrote to the point of this aversion in Western Attitudes toward Death.  ‘But one no longer has the right to say so aloud.’  Self-pity remains both the most common and the most universally reviled of our character defects, its pestilential destructiveness accepted as given.”Then she talks of the time they were together (all the time – they were writers both working from home), and how she misses his responses.  [I understand this very well; my husband works away from home and sometimes I think of, not just what I will tell him when he gets home, but how I will phrase it so I get a good response.]

A little further on (after having quoted a rather wonderful passage from CS Lewis about the death of his wife) about how thought of a new life and love misses the point.  “Of course you can [love more than one person] but marriage is something different. Marriage is memory, marriage is time. ‘She didn’t know the song,’ I recall being told that a friend of a friend had said after an attempt to repeat the experience.’ Marriage is not only time: it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time.  For forty years I saw myself through John’s eyes. I did not age. This year for the first time since I was twenty-nine I saw myself was of someone significantly younger.”  A passage where she talks of the difference between grief and mourning was also interesting, but I can’t remember where it was; basically she said that grief forces itself on you, mourning was what you did after the first grief had passed.

I did have reservations about this book, but they are partly because of me, the reader.  I found it very American, full of allusions I am not sure of, streets and shops in New York and other cities, behaviour that is quite foreign – her husband has once flown (cheaply) 700 miles to have dinner with her when they were in different cities, they eat dinner at 11pm.  Oddly I don’t have this same sense of dislocation when rural America is the setting, but urban America seems at once familiar in its modern urban attitudes and foreign in what feels to me its ‘over-the-topness’.  

It was a book club book and I can imagine the discussion will be lively and personal.  I am not sure how the woman whose son died last year will cope.  She must still be feeling rather dislocated from the world.

Back to top
View user's profile Send private message

Joined: 19 Nov 2008
Posts: 3864

Location: Staines, Middlesex

PostPosted: Sat Jul 20, 2013 7:53 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I recently read Julian Barnes' Levels of Life, in which he writes of his grief after the death of his wife.

Grief is a topic I find myself drawn to - not, I hope, in a morbid way (i.e. of luxuriating in it), but of sincerely trying to understand how human beings experience this most unbearable, and yet most inevitable, of emotions. Each person is different, so each will experience grief in a different manner: but, as in all things human, there is also a great deal of commonality. As Wordsworth put it, "we have, all of us, one human heart".

In one sense, there is nothing to be said on the subject. The most heartbreaking expression of grief I can think of is a fivefold repetition of a single word:

                         No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

And yet, we always keep turning back to this, because the emotion is just so overpowering that we have to.

See my blog:

(Go on! - You'd like it!  - Honest!)
Back to top
View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail
Green Jay

Joined: 13 Jan 2009
Posts: 1605

Location: West Sussex

PostPosted: Sun Jul 21, 2013 12:19 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Yes, that speech in Lear always get to me, too.

Back to top
View user's profile Send private message
Display posts from previous:   
Post new topic   Reply to topic    Big Readers Forum Index -> What non-fiction are you reading? All times are GMT
Page 1 of 1

Jump to:  
You cannot post new topics in this forum
You cannot reply to topics in this forum
You cannot edit your posts in this forum
You cannot delete your posts in this forum
You cannot vote in polls in this forum

Card File  Gallery  Forum Archive
Powered by phpBB © 2001, 2002 phpBB Group
Big Readers Theme by Mike Alexander
Based on Artemis by Vjacheslav Trushkin
Create your own free forum | Buy a domain to use with your forum