Think Magic

Speaking of memoirs: after pointing me to Taylor's Leaving Church (and having the same concerns), my wife passed along Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (a National Book Award winner). In addition to Didion's literary depth, the book offers several other contrasts.

The year of "magical" thinking follows a horrific sequence at the end of 2003 in which Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne find their daughter on life support. Returning home from one such excruciating visit, Dunne suffers a massive cardiac episode and dies. It is weeks before Didion's daughter regains consciousness and can be told the terrible news--only to then later suffer a brain bleed that once again puts her in a coma (she later, very slowly, recovers).

Both Taylor and Didion are Episcopalians, though Didion is forthright that this is merely a cultural tradition for her. She is Episcopalian in the same way that one might be Texan or speak Spanish: it is taken to be an accident of birth, though nonetheless a formative aspect of one's identity. But she confesses that her heart was never really in it when, at the end of the creed, she would profess belief in "the resurrection of the dead." And yet, the "magical" thinking of this year seems to be the hope that John will return: that things need to be primed for his re-appearance. But perhaps in describing this as "magical," Didion has already implanted all that's needed to dismiss such thinking as mad.

Ultimately this is a memoir of grieving; and by the end, she has begun the work of mourning. Indeed, one of the insights of the book is her experiential distinction between "grieving"--which is largely passive, comes in waves, and sneaks up on you--and "mourning"--which is active, requires hard work and intentionality. But despite being a memoir of grieving, one must be struck by how un-sentimental the book is: it almost has an air of aristocratic or royal restraint about it ("you mustn't let them see you weep"). And yet neither is it aloof or cold. It is forthright, honest, and heartbreaking.

What struck me most is the way in which The Year of Magical Thinking (unlike Leaving Church) is a memoir where characters other than the author really take center stage--in this case Didion's husband, John, and her daughter, Quintana. The memoir is an homage, without slipping into hagiography.

It is also a glimpse of what can only be described as an exotic, almost extinct beast: a 40-year marriage right smack in the middle of Hollywood and the New York literary set. Here was a couple who were both writers, who worked from home together pretty much everyday for 40 years, who not only survived this, but thrived because of it. It is this marriage and this friendship that makes The Year of Magical Thinking so lonely, veritably echoing with emptiness. What emerges from the book is an honest picture of a marriage that was, above all, a friendship in the most Aristotelian sense. The account of marriage here is one that puts to shame so much "Christian" literature (e.g., cp. the non-account of Taylor's marriage in her memoir, which seems so tangential to her identity). The Year of Magical Thinking is a story of marriage as the hardest thing in the world, but also the most rewarding and enlivening ("quickening" we would say in the older rhythms of King James English). As such, Didion gives unwitting, backhanded witness to sacramentality.