Didion is the most “cosmopolitan” of America’s great writers. Throughout The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion is always moving between Manhattan apartments and Malibu beach homes. Through flashbacks to their forty years together, Didion and her husband, who was also her sometimes writing partner, muse, and all-times editor and critic, John Gregory Dunne, are jetting off to some vacation spot. Literal and metaphorical flights of fancy to Hawaii or Paris. Their daughter Quintana is often in tow. Didion also moves in and through spaces of privilege–Hollywood dinner parties, national political conventions–with equal breeziness.
The power of Didion’s prose is how she juxtaposes signifiers of class status with the primitive and universal. She build a fire. She closes a circle around herself and her beloveds to ward off the chill and fright of the night. And she does so in a Manhattan high rise with a doorman who keeps a log of everyone’s comings and goings.
Of course, when she wrote this book in 2004, Didion had earned such ease with enviable places and people in the public’s imagination. This is, in part, because she had served as an avatar for the public within these spaces. She belonged, and thus so could her readers, if they could ever write as well as she could (which we could).
Didion’s readers also cannot begrudge her ease with privilege when she’s writing in the aftermath of the sudden–and through Didion’s astute and painstaking reporting, we learn, the likely instant–death of her husband on December 30, 2003 in their Manhattan home.
The loss is so profound for Didion because of how close the couple was. Not just in marriage, but also on the page. Didion remarks toward the end of The Year in Magical Thinking that she found it almost impossible to end her first writing project after Dunne’s death–a report from the 2004 Republican National Convention–because it had been decades since anything she had written hadn’t also been edited by Dunne.
But Didion, the widowed wife, could not grieve and mourn (she masterfully distinguishes between the two). Because Didion was also a mother caring for a deathly ill adult child, Quintana. In caring for Quintana, Didion spent less time in her comfortable coastal homes, and more time in uncomfortable hospital rooms, first in New York, then in California, and then back in New York. I’ve tried to sleep in those foldout arm chairs that hospitals put in ICU waiting rooms. They are not luxurious.
In reconstructing the events that led to Dunne’s death, Didion writes into the self knowledge that she was really trying to bring him back. This was the “magical thinking.” The standard rituals of grief–especially the religious ones (like the funeral)–did not suffice to forestall the closing in of the “unending absence,” “the void, the very opposite meaning” (189) that would from then give her life its shape–or lack thereof.
The book is mostly about Dunne. But I felt the most compelling parts where about Quintana. Didion desperately worked to keep her alive, especially when she failed to bring Dunne back from the dead. Readers of Didion know that Quintana did recover, only to die of another acute illness–pancreatitis (I’m very ambivalent about the reviews of Didion’s book Blue Nights (2011) about coping–or failing to cope–with Quintana’s death that fault Didion for not mining enough the potential true cause of death–alcoholism. I’m ambivalent about writing this long parenthetical aside).
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion foreshadows the “unending absence” that would come from the death of a child before the death of a parent. If her daughter died, Didion would be robbed of an afterlife, as her daughter would not be able to continue the family’s rituals: walking on the beach in Malibu; smelling the blooming mustard; “eat fried fish at the Ventura County line” (87).
I think I was pulled closer to Didion and Quintana because I’m a father who has (albeit briefly) sat in those (N)ICU rooms, praying, pleading, bargaining with God to heal my child. I think I was pulled close them, too, out of fear that I’ll be back there again one day.
A year is a magical thing, I take from Didion. Forty years are miraculous. But, at least in our memories, we can hold on to a year. We can hold on to a decade. But it’s hard to hold on to an early morning before dawn when you’re up writing while your family is asleep next door.
Those moments–wasted moments (187)–when she and her husband were in their offices, just feet apart, but energies separated that weigh most on Didion’s memory. Working on things–writing in her case (and in mine right now)–took her away from her beloved.
[I want to leave this room and squeeze into my daughter’s toddler bed. I want now to have let her win the nightly battle so that one or the two of her parents is cramped on top of a pile of books that she pages through before she sleeps each night in the dim of her nightlight. I want to smell her hair and hear her rasping night breathing.]
[But I’ve assigned myself a year of reading and living in the lives and families of others. This will be a particularly kind of magical year, certainly. But will it be worth it?]