Job Had It Easy

It's going to take more than a drink and a cigarette: Joan Didion with her late daughter and husband
John Bryson/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Joan Didion
The Year of Magical Thinking

In June, Joan Didion committed apostasy in the pages of The New York Review of Books. It's a godless organ, in general, and so the job wasn't easy. Didion's galling offense in her story, a meditation on the Terri Schiavo case, was to question the role of Terri's husband and his chosen attorney--wingnuts, both--in the whole unseemly affair. Criticism of Didion's piece had odd reverberations: One self-proclaimed "liberal" blog counted more than 58 printed pages of comments eviscerating the writer.

James Wolcott, a Vanity Fair scribe, even used the occasion to denigrate the majority of Didion's published output, declaring in a fit of blog bloviation that Didion had been "coasting on a pinched air of superiority for decades," and had lost her "focus." "Now her only role," Wolcott concluded, "seems to be to remind readers that she's still around."

Didion is most certainly "still around," as her latest nonfiction book, The Year of Magical Thinking, well attests. And no small feat is that: The title refers to the year Didion spent dealing with what can truly be deemed a confluence of personal tragedy. Her husband of 40 years, novelist John Gregory Dunne, dropped dead at the dinner table on December 30, 2003. The sudden heart attack happened just five days after the couple's adult daughter was admitted to intensive care in a state of septic shock, related to what initially appeared to be a bout with the flu. For the next year, Quintana Roo was semi-comatose, victim of an awful variety of medical maladies. Because of this, Didion was forced to relay the news of Dunne's death to Quintana no less than three times, whenever she resurfaced into consciousness.

The irony, then, is that Didion has never been more "focused," despite Wolcott's judgment. The careful research and detail of Didion's Schiavo piece buttresses a chilling theory: To the author, Quintana was Schiavo, and vice versa, feeding tube and all.

Magical Thinking is no pity party and Didion is not interested in sitting on Dr. Phil's couch. In that sense, Didion has managed to craft a memoir where neither she, nor Dunne, nor Quintana stands as the main character in the book. In an example of typical Didion detachment, that role belongs to the profound concept of grief. And the book is an attempt to understand what happens when something is suddenly missing from our lives. If you connect with the story in Magical Thinking, you'll likely never approach a relationship--no matter how trivial--the same way again.

"Life changes fast," the book begins, on what indeed appears to be a trivial note. "Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity." This would seem an auspicious start, except that Didion explains that this is the first thing she wrote in a "Microsoft Word file ('Notes on change.doc')" just days after Dunne's demise. This near-cliché becomes a glimpse into the grieving process as Didion examines every reason she cared to write in the first place: "This is a case in which I need more than words to find meaning."

In the minutes after Dunne's body--he was already dead--arrives at the emergency room at New York-Presbyterian "six crosstown blocks" from the couple's Upper East Side home, a social worker assigned to Didion tells the doctor that she's a "cool customer." Didion spends the next few moments trying to figure how she can get both Dunne and Quintana transferred to a more familiar hospital so the family can be together. Didion then goes home to check the doorman's log at the couple's apartment building to see when the ambulance arrived and departed--to find out exactly when Dunne died. "Cool customer" becomes one of Didion's saving, ironic devices.

From there, Didion heads to southern California, after Quintana--hoping to recuperate in Malibu after being discharged--collapses at LAX with a head full of blood. Didion spends time trying to instruct the doctors how to treat her daughter. When she drives away from the hospital, she avoids the familiar roadways near where the family lived for most of the 1970s and '80s. Inevitably, though, the city stirs memories, and so Didion replays some ominous details of life with her husband. "'Now I know how I'm going to die,'" Dunne tells his wife one night, after a particularly bleak visit to the cardiologist in 1987.

Though she's often referred to as an essayist, a novelist, and a screenwriter (she's done all three with middling results), Didion is a writer whose primary gift is observation--focusing on the micro, and letting the macro try to answer against it. Her more timeless works, like the 1980s dispatches Miami and Salvador, are efforts of powerful reportage.

Here, Didion finds herself tossing anything and everything into the void: medical minutiae, remembrances of luxury living, refrains from books and poems long-forgotten. She's not just a reporter here, but an accountant--much the way she was when she was compiling thoughts on the artifice of American democracy during the Reagan and Bush eras in Political Fictions (2001).

"Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be," she writes early in the book, astutely summarizing the post-9/11 era, with its wars and tsunamis and endless anxieties. (It does not take into account Quintana's death, which came in August of this year, after the completion of the book.) "Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life."

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