The Last Thing She Wanted

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (Knopf, 227 pages, $23.95)

“Milk it, but no excessive melodramatics,” John Gregory Dunne tells us he wrote to himself in 1987, shortly after his doctors declared him a candidate for a “catastrophic cardiac event.” In his 1989 memoir, Harp, he reports that he also drafted a note about procedures that were to be followed should he suddenly die. Calvin Trillin was to deliver the news to Dunne's only child, Quintana Roo. “[I]t was,” Dunne wrote, “as if my wife, whom I jauntily called ‘the little widow,' could not manage on her own.”

Dunne deleted the note; his wife was Joan Didion, and he knew her toughness better than anyone. When his bad heart did kill him, at age 71 on December 30, 2003, neither Trillin nor Didion could inform Quintana. Diagnosed first as having the flu, then pneumonia, she had entered septic shock and lay in an induced coma at Beth Israel North Hospital in Manhattan.

Dunne's obituary in The New York Times mentioned only that Quintana was seriously ill. The paper's later article on his memorial service suggested that she had fully recovered. Both Quintana and her mother spoke at the service; Didion, “in full voice,” read a passage from Harp. The public record of Didion's life over the next several months confirmed that Dunne was right about his wife: Although the couple had been married for 40 years and were, in Didion's own words, “terrifically, terribly dependent” on each other, the little widow could, without question, manage on her own. Less than a year after Dunne's death she wrote -- in full voice -- a piece for The New York Review of Books on the presidential election. To the same journal she contributed a long analysis of the Terri Schiavo case.

Then came the announcement from Knopf that Didion had written The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir about grief. Since we no longer had to wonder whether Didion was working, we were free to speculate on how she was writing. In an anthology of pieces from National Review, the magazine on whose pages the Didion-Dunnes' engagement was announced, Priscilla Buckley (William F.'s sister) noted that when Didion first began writing for National Review, “her prose, while always careful, was more relaxed, even impish.” More relaxed, Buckley meant, than the writing in some of Didion's novels, the most recent of which, The Last Thing He Wanted, was described by the critic James Wood as having been narrated by “a ghost that has been taught to rap” or “a robot programmed to write like Joan Didion.” Didion could not write about loss impishly, but neither could she write about it robotically.

To read about the tragedies that have befallen Didion since the last days of 2003 is to put aside temporarily all questions about her writing. In The Year of Magical Thinking, we learn not only about how ill Quintana was at the time of her father's death, but that two days after his memorial service she collapsed at Los Angeles International Airport and underwent six hours of neurosurgery. We learn, too, that while Didion did appear to “manage” in the face of all this -- so actively monitoring her daughter's treatment that a member of the house staff threatened to resign -- she was during these months not just “crazy with loss” but “literally crazy.” Having arrived in Los Angeles with clothes appropriate for winter in New York, Didion went to the UCLA Medical Center bookstore and bought a few sets of blue cotton surgical scrubs. She gave away her husband's clothes but not his shoes; he would need them if he somehow returned to her. This, she says, was the beginning of her year of magical thinking.

At the end of it, and the book, she reported, “The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place. I look for resolution and find none.” She is unlikely to find it anytime soon. Medically stable at the time Didion finished writing this memoir, Quintana died this past August of an abdominal infection. Once described by Didion as “delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up,” she had been married a little more than two years, and was 39.

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Before she set out to write about grief, Didion spent many months reading about it. “In time of trouble,” she wrote, “I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control.” Control remained elusive, but she found comfort in poems (by W. H. Auden, Matthew Arnold, Delmore Schwartz), in the journal kept by C.S. Lewis after the death of his wife, and in Emily Post's 1922 etiquette book (“as acute in its apprehension … of death, and as prescriptive in its treatment of grief, as anything else I read”). The Year of Magical Thinking will be indispensable to those who are frustrated, as Didion was, by the how-to or “inspirational” guides on dealing with grief but do not know where else to turn.

Those who pick up the book simply because Joan Didion wrote it, however, are likely to be disappointed. I wish I could report that the problems with this memoir seem merely the result of Didion's having sat down at her computer when she was raw, exhausted, and unable to concentrate. But what is wrong with The Year of Magical Thinking is what is wrong with The Last Thing He Wanted: the one-sentence or one-word paragraphs (many of them souped up in italics), which seem less a stylistic choice than a consequence of auto-formatting; the lack of interest in, as Last Thing's narrator disturbingly put it, “the development and revelation of ‘character'”; the auctioneer's approach to detail. The book is thin but not taut. We learn too little about Dunne and too much about what was in his wallet and pockets at the time of his death. We accept Didion's repeated claim that she was demented; that she did not understand how, why, or when Dunne died; that she wanted his autopsy report so she could figure out what had gone wrong and “fix it,” or “bring him back.” But because we have also accepted the straightforward information that he died of a heart attack, Didion's chronologies and inventories (she gives us notes from her doorman's log as well as from the hospital records; she lists the injections administered by the paramedics) read like a Warren Report on the death of LBJ.

A great writer's weaker work does not matter. In an essay about Ernest Hemingway and his weaker work, Didion stressed the fact that “this was a writer who had in his time made the English language new, changed the rhythms of the way both his own and the next few generations would speak and write and think.” Cynthia Ozick saw it differently: “An army of succinctness-seekers followed in a movement that accommodated two or three generations of imitators, until finally the distinctive Hemingway dryness flaked off into lifeless desiccation. The Hemingway sentence became a kind of ancestral portrait on the wall, and died of too many descendants.”

Yes and no. Didion typed and retyped Hemingway's stories and became herself. (“You would never know it from reading me,” she once said to an interviewer when naming Hemingway as an influence.) Those of us who typed, or memorized, Didion's essays did so to become Didion. We haven't succeeded. Last January an early essay of hers, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” was celebrated on the Times' editorial page, an unusually explicit and wholly unnecessary reminder that literature is news that stays news. If a number of Didion books have not worn well, the Didion sentence, perfected when its author was only 31, remains robustly, untouchably alive.

Linda Hall is an assistant professor of English at Skidmore College.