The Year Of Magical Thinking details Didion’s reaction to the death of Dunne, a few days after Christmas, 2003, a period of time in which their daughter was hospitalized and near-death and, following a brief recovery, once again fell ill and died shortly before the book’s publication. A later book, Blue Nights, chronicles Didion’s coming to terms with that loss.
Heavy stuff, right? This should be some seriously deep, gut-wrenching material. But I was just bored by the thing. The telling of the story is flat and undramatic in what I suppose is an attempt to portray just how awful such events are, how they come from nowhere (“Life changes fast,” she writes, “life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”) and wipe you out so completely that all that is left is the barest ability to describe or explain. I understand that, I do, but it doesn’t make for a terribly compelling read.
From Wikipedia: “Didion applies the iconic reportorial detachment for which she is known to her own experience of grieving; there are few expressions of raw emotion.” Yeah, sure, I get it, but all this does is to create that same sense of detachment in the reader. There’s nothing in the book that makes you particularly care about Didion or her troubles, and since her insights into grieving aren’t especially unique or compelling—she can’t believe her husband is dead; she won’t give away his shoes, because that will confirm the reality of his death; she broods over the possibility that his death could have been avoided—you’re left feeling not much at all about what happened. And I find that iconic reportorial detachment very unappealing. I don’t know when I last read a colder book.
There was also this nagging undercurrent in my own mind as I read the book, of some blue collar, class-war style resentment. Didion and Dunne were rich and leisured, in that east coast, old money sort of way that makes me think of prep schools and John Irving novels. They seem like the kind of people who use the word “summer” as a verb. Or the kind who would casually mention attending a Knicks game with David Halberstam and his wife, being able to get good tickets because of a friendship with NBA commissioner David Stern.
(I wonder if the seed of this resentment—not toward wealth and leisure; that’s a basic hatred that was bred into my very bones, but toward Didion herself—comes from my reading of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre when I was fourteen or so, in which he dismisses Didion’s The White Album: “for rich folks, I suppose it’s a pretty interesting book: the story of a wealthy white woman who could afford to have her nervous breakdown in Hawaii.” Of course, King, even at the time he wrote that line had more money than he could ever spend, but he’s saved from hypocrisy by the simple virtue of writing something honest. And the fact that I’m quoting Stephen King speaks to what people like Didion—or what I imagine her to be—would probably see as emblematic of my own basic ignorance, the lack of sophistication among the great unwashed, that whole messy throng.)
The nagging undercurrent I got reading Magical Thinking was that there were parts of the story Didion was conveniently leaving out. Such as the fact that her daughter’s extensive illness was likely a result of
. Perfect little family, huh?