Copyright The New York Times
Published: October 4, 2005
In Joan Didion’s work, there has always been a fascination with what she once called “the unspeakable peril of the everyday” – the coyotes by the interstate, the snakes in the playpen, the fires and Santa Ana winds of California. In the past, that peril often seemed metaphorical, a product of a theatrical imagination and a sensibility attuned to the emotional and existential fault lines running beneath society’s glossy veneer: it was personal but it was also abstract.
There is nothing remotely abstract about what has happened to Ms. Didion in the last two years.
On Christmas Day 2003, her daughter Quintana, who had come down with flulike symptoms, went to the emergency room at Beth Israel North hospital in New York City. Suffering from pneumonia and septic shock, she was suddenly in the hospital’s intensive-care unit, hooked up to a respirator and being given a potent intravenous drug cocktail.
Five days later, Ms. Didion’s husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, sat down to dinner in their Manhattan apartment, then abruptly slumped over and fell to the floor. He was pronounced dead – of a massive heart attack – later that evening.
“The Broken Man,” what Quintana as a young girl used to call “fear and death and the unknown,” had come for her father, even as it had come to wait for her in the I.C.U.
“Life changes fast,” Ms. Didion would write a day or two later. “Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
Like those who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks of 9/11, like those who have lost friends and family members to car accidents, airplane crashes and other random acts of history, Ms. Didion instantly saw ordinary life morph into a nightmare. She saw a shared existence with shared rituals and shared routines shatter into a million irretrievable pieces.
In her devastating new book, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Ms. Didion writes about the year she spent trying to come to terms with what happened that terrible December, a year she says that “cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.”
Throughout their careers, Ms. Didion and Mr. Dunne wrote about themselves, about their marriage, their nervous breakdowns, the screenplays they worked on together and the glittering worlds they inhabited in New York and Los Angeles. Writing for both of them was a way to find out what they thought; the construction of a narrative was a means of imposing a pattern on the chaos of life.
And so, almost a year after the twin calamities of December 2003, Ms. Didion began writing this volume. It is an utterly shattering book that gives the reader an indelible portrait of loss and grief and sorrow, all chronicled in minute detail with the author’s unwavering, reportorial eye. It is also a book that provides a haunting portrait of a four-decade-long marriage, an extraordinarily close relationship between two writers, who both worked at home and who kept each other company almost 24 hours a day, editing each other’s work, completing and counterpointing each other’s thoughts.
“I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him,” Ms. Didion writes. “This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response.”
Like so many of her fictional heroines, Ms. Didion says she always prized control as a means of lending life at least the illusion of order, and in an effort to cope with what happened to her husband and daughter, she turned to the Internet and to books. “Read, learn, work it up, go to the literature,” she writes. “Information is control.” She queried doctors, researched the subjects of grief and death, read everything from Emily Post on funeral etiquette to Philippe Ariès’s “Western Attitudes Toward Death.”
When Quintana suffered a relapse in March 2004 – she collapsed at the Los Angeles airport and underwent emergency neurosurgery at the U.C.L.A. Medical Center for a massive hematoma in her brain – Ms. Didion began researching the doctors’ findings. She skimmed the appendices to a book called “Clinical Neuroanatomy” and studied “Intensive Care: A Doctor’s Journal” in an effort to learn what questions to ask Quintana’s doctors.
During those weeks at U.C.L.A., Ms. Didion says she realized that many of her friends in New York and California “shared a habit of mind usually credited to the very successful”: “They believed absolutely in their own management skills. They believed absolutely in the power of the telephone numbers they had at their fingertips, the right doctor, the major donor, the person who could facilitate a favor at State or Justice.” For many years, she shared those beliefs, and yet at the same time she says she always understood that “some events in life would remain beyond my ability to control or manage them” and that “some events would just happen. This was one of those events.”
Nor could she control her own thoughts. Try as she might to suppress them, memories of her life with Mr. Dunne – of trips they had taken with Quintana to Hawaii, of homes they had lived in Los Angeles and Manhattan, of walks and meals shared – continually bobbed to the surface of her mind, creating a memory “vortex” that pulled her back in time only to remind her of all that she had lost. She began trying to avoid places she might associate with her husband or daughter.
The magical thinking of denial became Ms. Didion’s companion. She found herself “thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome.” She authorized an autopsy of her husband, reasoning that an autopsy could show what had gone wrong, and if it were something simple – a change in medication, say, or the resetting of a pacemaker – “they might still be able to fix it.”
She similarly refused to give away his shoes, reasoning that it would be impossible for him to “come back” without anything to wear on his feet. When she heard that Julia Child had died, she thought: “this was finally working out: John and Julia Child could have dinner together.”
In an effort to get her mind around what happened, Ms. Didion ran the events of Dec. 30 through her mind again and again, just as she ran several decades of family life through her mind, looking for a way to de-link the chain of causation. What if they hadn’t moved to New York so many years ago? What if Quintana had gone to a different hospital? What if they still lived in Brentwood Park in their two-story Colonial house with the center-hall plan?
Even when Quintana seems to be making a recovery, Ms. Didion finds it difficult to work: she has a panic attack in Boston, trying to cover the Democratic convention, and puts off finishing an article, thinking that without John, she has no one to read it. She feels “fragile, unstable,” worried that when her sandal catches on the sidewalk, she will fall and there will be no one to take her to the emergency room. She takes to wearing sneakers about town and begins leaving a light on in the apartment throughout the night.
In this book, the elliptical constructions and sometimes mannered prose of the author’s recent fiction give way to the stunning candor and piercing details that distinguished her groundbreaking early books of essays, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album.” At once exquisitely controlled and heartbreakingly sad, “The Year of Magical Thinking” tells us in completely unvarnished terms what it is to love someone and lose him, what it is to have a child fall sick and be unable to help her.
It is a book that tells us how people try to make sense of the senseless and how they somehow go on.
The tragic coda to Ms. Didion’s story is not recounted in these pages: the death – from an abdominal infection – of Quintana in August, a year and eight months after she first fell ill and a year and eight months after the death of her father.