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Review: The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, Knopf NY. 227 pages, $33.96

How could he come back if they took his organs? How could he come back if he had no shoes?

That is the kernel of thought, if indeed that is something as rational and calm as thought, around which Joan Didion's brief book, The Year of Magical Thinking, is organized, if indeed there is something as coarse and simple as organization in the life of someone whose husband of forty years dies without a word of warning at the dinner table one December evening while her attention is diverted by the salad, and whose only daughter, in this same, terrible interminable year, is in and out of comas in brightly overlit hospitals in various corners of the country. Possibly only something as quixotic as magical thinking would keep someone sane under these circumstances, if indeed there is any scrap of sanity at all in profound grief. As Didion, in her hard, clear prose notes, "The power of grief to derange the mind has in fact been exhaustively noted."

Normally–if there is such a thing as normal for this generation of baby boomers and their offspring, for whom the ways of dying have exploded exponentially (not for us death at home from simple old age; even that has been become statistically unlikely as the ways of keeping people alive keep pace with the ways of killing them off)–normally, when someone dies it is the end of the hospital nightmare. Dying means you don't have to go to those institutions anymore; you don't have to try to interpret CT scans and MRIs and have utterly unintelligible conversations with hotshot doctors who seem to be sneering at your ignorance even as they revel smugly in their own superior knowledge, even as you suspect, rightly sometimes, that they are actually only one Google search ahead of you in keeping track of the latest drug trial, the latest theory, the latest, the very latest in the life-saving gimmickry being invented, just not quite as quickly as the ways of dying.

Not so for Didion, a writer who is always in the thick of things; her own story reads like one of her novels. For much of the year she was mourning her husband their daughter was close to death, so even that comfort was denied her. Didion's husband and writing partner, John Gregory Dunne, had a massive heart attack at home and was dead before he got to the hospital. I should say before he was taken back to the hospital, where they had just been, spending time with their only daughter Quintana Roo, who was in a coma, after a flu "morphed into whole-body infection."

Didion clearly is in shock for an entire year; she did not say goodbye. This book is a way of saying good bye to someone she must imagine alive to hear her doing so; he must remember with her certain precious moments; he must witness with her the apparent prolonged recovery of their only daughter, in and out of comas and hospitals, hooked up to tubes and machines. (How truly horrible that, after the completion of this book, after the end of mourning and a return to something close to normal, her daughter died this summer. We did not know this, in this book, but we can only hope and pray that Didion was able to truly witness her daughter's death, as she did not her husband's.)

But even as she conjures him, Didion is trying to escape what she calls the vortex, that point at which the present slides down into the painful abyss of memory. She avoids old haunts, old houses, any place where memories might ambush her, but of course she is ambushed anyway, when she is least ready. But when, in the year after a loved one's death is one ready for a deluge of memories? Didion's distractions include a wealth of literary materials (Emily Post, Auden, Hopkins, Shakespeare and Freud), the New York Times crossword, and the ongoing grip of Quintana's medical situation (who comes out of one coma, attends her father's funeral and flies to Los Angeles and has a brain hemorrhage and is unconscious again for a month and then recuperating for three more).

If the book sounds chaotic and jumpy and allusive, it is. That is what grief is like, even as it shifts, finally, into mourning and the days seem to fall into place, and the memories calm down and the prickly itch of guilt subsides.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.

She wrote those words a few days after his death, instantly conscious, as a writer, of both the drama and the possibilities for weaknesses in the writing. She wrote nothing else until October and finished the manuscript on the anniversary of his death in late December, when there were, again, coloured Christmas lights on the branches of quince in what is now her apartment. She thought she had come to the end of the story, but another ending awaited her, in August when her daughter died. Sometime during her daughter's last days, she applied her almost frightening rigour of thought and writing to the subject of Theresa Schiavo for the New York Review of Books; it is a piece about what little we know about people in comas and its incisive rage is vintage Didion, but it is limned, clearly with her own experience: someone else's daughter, another hospital, but the questions are the same.

Didion's terrible year takes place in her somewhat rarefied milieu: the upper east or west side of New York, private jets, the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the bubble of fame and fortune and celebrity in which she lives by virtue of her high profile career in journalism, fiction and film. She has resources; she can ask hard questions; she can fix things, or most things; she is, as she of course overheard herself being described by a socials worker, "one cool customer." But her pain is that of every woman, wife, mother. Her terror and ignorance and aloneness are ours; her words resonate with the experiences we have either all had or are about to have.

Marian Botsford Fraser is a Stratford-based writer; her book, Requiem for My Brother, will be published in October, 2006.