When I bought this book, I had no idea what it was about. But it didn’t so much matter: it was by Joan Didion. I knew it would be good. I’d put her and Annie Dillard’s names on a watchlist at the local used bookstore (yes, some places still do that!). And so, when they called to see if I was interested in a copy of The Year of Magical Thinking that had just come in, I said sure.
I suppose I thought this book would be in the same genre as so many other “year of” memoirs, like The Year of Living Biblically, to name a recent one. To me, the idea of doing something for a year with the express purpose of writing about it seemed a rather arbitrary — if convenient — timeline.
This “year of” tradition started, I’ve been told, with Walden. Though Thoreau clearly articulated on the book’s first page that he spent two years and two months in the woods, he proceeds to collapse these (for the sake of narrative ease) into a single year, with the season of spring bookending both sides of his long-form essay.
Whatever I supposed the subject of The Year of Magical Thinking to be, least of all, I didn’t think it would be about grief, specifically, Didion’s grief after the loss of John, her husband of nearly 40 years.
The book’s unusual title comes from grief’s mark on Didion. The night after John’s unanticipated death, Didion insists on going back to their New York apartment and being alone. Why? She “knew John was dead,” but “there was a level on which [she] believed that what had happened remained reversible.”
“I needed to be alone so that he could come back,” Didion explains.
“This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking.”
The Year of Magical Thinking is an intricate, beautiful web of memory and mourning, in which we, as readers, we are privy to the intimate thoughts and irrationalities and obsessions that occur to the bereaved.
Didion, for instance, gives a scene, and then circles around before swooping down on it again. Each time, she recasts it with additional information or thinking or insight. She illustrates grief by going over the facts, as she knows them, again and again.
But she also adds to them. If there were a plot to this work, it would be the gradual understanding that Didion — and the reader — has about the events, as Didion thinks about them, does research, relives memories even as she complicates them, questions herself, all the while as time slowly inches forward.
If Thoreau compressed time in his memoir, then Didion, conversely, draws it out in hers. With grief, time is important, along with the repetition of time as a year comes to a close. In this case, a year seemed very appropriate.
“Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life. Virtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of ‘waves.'”
In some ways, the book reminded me of the memoir by C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, in which he documents his grieving process after the death of his wife (a work, which, incidentally, Didion makes a passing reference to in her memoir). In Lewis’s work, he writes more about the generalities of grief. Didion goes for the details.
About how she systematically avoids specific places that would bring on associative memories of John. How she gets lost in a memory “vortex” when she does go to these places. And how she can’t give away his shoes.
At times, I felt that Didion pushed the boundaries of how many mundane details of her own life could be included — the kind of details that would matter to no one else but the person to whom they belonged — in the re-thinking, the over-thinking, and the re-imagining of the events surrounding John’s death, and the aftermath.
Yet at the same time, I sought to stifle my questioning thoughts. Perhaps because the details in question belonged to none other than Joan Didion. Perhaps because they belonged to the bereaved. Or perhaps because, in a way, I saw a part of myself in them, not in the particularities, but in the anxiety in sharing them.
As a writer, I found myself wondering as I read: Could a reader really be expected to care about all these details? I had previously attempted an essay on grief myself, and had been paralyzed by this same question; I hadn’t pushed the essay past workshop.
But, it is precisely in those details, I realized, that we are able to live the experience with her; or, at the very least, feel that we have the closest view possible without having experienced this particular loss ourselves. We care about Didion’s private loss not only because she is able to express it so articulately, but also because in her experience, we find we can better understand our own (whatever it may be). And while the details will be different, they give us access to the essence of what it means to grieve.
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” writes Didion near the end of the book.
It occurs to me that decades before, Didion began an essay by writing: “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” Though pulled from an essay about leaving New York in her twenties, these words proved prophetic, not only for her leaving (she moves back to New York with John) but also her bereavement.
The name of the essay, of course, is “Goodbye to All That.” Its opening words seemed to be at the heart of her memoir. In my reading of it, her treatise on grief is her attempt to find the end of things.
The Year of Magical Thinking turns out to be not only a personal account of – but perhaps also a roadmap of – what happens after the end.
Question: What memoirs have you read recently that resonated with you?