The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is like eating the perfect meal – each bite so good you want to gobble the whole plate. But each bite so good, too, that you want to slow down to make it last, savouring ideas by looking up from the page, even putting the book down to delay its passing.

This is a memoir of the year after Didion’s husband’s sudden death. She realizes that her grief has shifted her beliefs towards magical thinking: when she reads of a celebrity’s death her first thought, her very first, is ‘Oh good, now they can keep my husband company’ – even though she doesn’t believe in an afterlife. She wonders if the doomed know they’re about to die, and fixates on passing remarks from her husband’s final two weeks – had he known? Could she have known? Could she have saved him?

(Photo: Amy Attas)

It’s a beautiful thing, to call the madness of grief ‘magical thinking,’ and it opens up the book to all sorts of research and philosophy on the great black mystery of death. The book follows a critical thinker as she studies her own behaviour and reaches for the literature, and feels a lot like an honest conversation with a good friend. What have you been up to Joan? What have you been thinking about?

The book is enjoyable because its writing is delicate and precise. It is enjoyable because Didion is insightful about death and grief, even if she offers no answers. But it is also enjoyable for the same reasons that reality television is entertaining – for the action and suspense of Didion’s life before and after her husband’s death. It moves. And it’s compelling for its blunt depiction of a long-term relationship.

Take this discussion on whether Joan and John should go to Paris in November, where Joan strongly states her own position while self-depreciating:

“I did not want to go. I said we had too much to do and too little money. He said he had a sense that if he did not go to Paris in November he would never again go to Paris. I interpreted this as blackmail. That settles it then, I said, we’re going. He left the table. We did not speak in any meaningful way for two days.”

I love that line, “I interpreted this as blackmail.” It’s so dramatic, particularly for a civilized personality like Joan Didion, and yet so honest and accurate.

Since Joan and John are both writers, the book also offers insights into the writer’s life. John is often depicted rereading novels to see how they worked, and, twenty-five nights before he dies, that is what Joan describes him doing. He’s studying one of Joan’s novels and reads a passage aloud to her:

““Goddamn,” John said to me when he closed the book. “Don’t ever tell me again you can’t write. That’s my birthday present to you.”

I remember tears coming to my eyes.

I feel them now.”

It surprised me to read that both Joan and John frequently doubted their own skill. There’s a perception that, once you’ve been published, you’ll stop wondering if you’re a good writer. Or if not then, certainly once you’ve won awards, or published a dozen books, or been profiled in the New York Times. But both Joan and John admit to doubting the merit of their work, even at the end of long, rich careers. This is simultaneously encouraging and depressing to me, an artist at the beginning of her career. So feeling doubt is normal. So feeling doubt never goes away. Goddamn.

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