Slenderisms Review: The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) - Joan Didion - 5/5
Having just lost someone close, a family member recently shared how difficult things had become. In 2010 I lost someone, too. Though I had heard much about it, I had not yet read Didion’s book. I suggested that we read it together and then compare notes.
For those who know, these things (by that I mean death and its resulting total absence) are never ‘dealt’ with. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion gets at exactly that (as well as so much more), walking the reader through the strange and disorienting (sur)reality that accompanied her husband’s sudden death. She recounts many things…medical facts and the workings (and failings) of the physical heart and body, anecdotes about places they lived, the things she could recall and had forgotten.
Reading along without a visceral response to much of the text, I was halted and brought to tears by this passage near the book’s end:
“In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be ‘healing.’ A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to ‘get through it,’ rise to the occasion, exhibit the ‘strength’ that invariable gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself with be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaningless itself.” (p. 188-189)
Up until this point, I had read the text as her story…the things that happened to her and her family. Here she makes a marked shift from ‘I’ to ‘we’. Instead of speaking to/at me, in this passage and throughout the rest of the book there was a very clear sense that she was speaking for/with me…putting into words the feelings and fears I had but could not identify or express.
I think that this is the major strength of the book. Whereas many memoir-type texts focus on a remarkable person and their remarkable experiences (surely Didion is one and has had many), this one exposes and explicates a ubiquitous, yet always solitary, experience. Somehow it normalizes (without making trivial), and bridges the gap between the intensely personal and the communal.