The Year of Magical Thinking offers personal grief and mourning

The Year of Magical Thinking offers personal grief and mourning following the cruel reality of Joan Didion‘s loss of her husband and fellow author, John Gregory Dunne, just as the new year was due to turn from 2003 to 2004. This came on the heals of their daughter, Quintana, having taken seriously ill just before Christmas that same year. The Year of Magical Thinking represents Didion‘s taking this deeply personal series of events, and the year that followed, to mourn, then grieve, and really to reflect through the blows that these big real things in their full magnitude meant to her, her feelings of love for her husband and daughter, and mixtures of feeling responsible, abandoning, abandoned, and the many steps of reconciling to her new reality over the course of the year that followed.

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This personal telling of the shock of instant mourning and reluctant grieving begins with the awareness that Dunne and Didion had just come from the hospital where their only daughter Quintana had just been placed into a medically induced coma. This necessity had been the result of septic shock having resulted a runaway pneumonia infection. Didion and Dunne had been discussing whatever trifle had been between them over dinner. Per this recounting from The New York Times, “Dunne slumped in his chair with one hand raised, dying so suddenly that for a moment his wife mistook the event for a failed joke.”

Despite the really heart wrenching subject matter of losing her husband like this, and subsequently coping with the coma and numerous complications of her daughter’s condition, could lead you to surmise that The Year of Magical Thinking was a downer of a tale. While dealing in heaviness, Didion uses much of her experience as an accomplished writer to bring forth a much more real, matter-of-fact, and understated yet expressive and personal accounting of the true feeling that underpins these experiences.

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As the October 2005 account from Robert Pinsky of The New York Times indicates, Didion‘s:

“manner is deadpan funny, slicing away banality with an air that is ruthless yet meticulous. She uses few adjectives. The unshowy, nearly flat surface of her writing is rippled by patterns of repetition: an understatement that, like Hemingway’s, attains its own kind of drama. Repetition and observation narrate emotion by demonstrating it, so that restraint itself becomes poetic[.]”

The effect is to share a deeply personal story of trying to process her new, sudden, and real experience. Didion aims to process her reality, and shares examples of facts she must have come into contact with yet didn’t process until much later. The processing experience for Joan Didion was partly to write to really discover, through that process, what she thought, felt, indeed feels (in the first person of a person in 2005) about her new, raw, and unanticipated reality. The deeper qualities of those feelings are revealed with an intelligence that I truly appreciated.

Back to The New York Times:

“In relation to her daughter’s life-threatening illness, involving a second coma and crisis after one recovery, Didion reflects on the class of very successful people who believe “absolutely in their own management skills,” the power of telephone numbers: the right doctor or donor or politician. This language of privilege that knows its resources, too, becomes at a certain point an evasion: everyone alive, all of us, are at best temporary kings.”

It isn’t an obvious conclusion from The Year of Magical Thinking that, for the year following her husband’s death or her daughter’s ongoing illness, that the new reality of Joan’s singular existence without John, or in the effort to bring about Quintana’s restored health, that Joan has not really completed the grieving process. She certainly has started to come to grasp with her circumstances, and still feels some sense for impractical responsibility for things she clearly couldn’t have controlled. She has made headway in actually understanding components of her husband’s death that will have set her, Joan, onto the path of recovery.

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Not really having read other narratives of mourning and grief, it is a hard field to hoe for me to really say that I wanted more or less from this first person account. The spare writing style was personally gratifying, and I appreciate the feelings reflected in this forthright narrative. The material is emotionally hard, though not in the graphic sense. I appreciate the direct style of this more than some others might.

My rating is 4-stars out-of-5.

Matt – Sunday, May 14, 2017