Jun 23, 2011

Notes on The Year of Magical Thinking

Disclaimer: Long, deeply personal post ahead.

There are some important books in our lives. Not all books we love fall into this category – only the ‘important’ ones. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (TYOMT) is an important book.

Reading it was a little like watching Peepli Live & Millon Dollar Baby or reading Moon and the Sixpence – all works of art that I believe left me subtly altered. Not happier or sadder, just changed like the landscape changes after the parking lot has been reduced in size to broaden the sidewalk. Perhaps that’s why my response to this book is so visceral, so urgent, so intimate. In writing this post I was aware of a feeling of self-consciousness that my response to it may seem maudlin, or extreme & melodramatic. Then I thought – aren't these useless labels which we use when we cannot bring ourselves to feel things the way the other does?

The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion's 13th book which she completed in Dec 2004 (in 88 days flat), 10 months after her husband, celebrated writer John Dunne, collapsed from a fatal coronary attack as the couple were having dinner. The suddenness of the incident, the suddenness of any deeply-felt loss, no matter how prepared we think we are, is what is expressed in the repeated refrain - “You sit down for dinner and life as you know it changes in an instant.”

John Dunne died in Dec 2003 while their daughter Quintana was in the ICU of a NY hospital fighting pneumonia and septic shock. The first half of the book is interspersed with references to her 40-years’ married life with John, and the present circumstances where Quintana suffers one setback after another. At the end of the book, Quintana is slowly recuperating. Yet, little did Didion know at the time she completed this memoir that she hadn’t seen the end of it all. Some 7 months after the book's release, Quintana finally succumbed to a last bout of fatal infection and died in August 2005. This is a difficult book to read because from the onset you are privy to a knowledge that the author is unaware of as she tries to cope with her grief. The reader reads every word soaked in the knowledge that Didion has suffered a double bereavement but Didion herself was not aware of that as she wrote TYOMT! I found this the greatest travesty.

To one who hasn’t read the book, it may seem that TYOMT is maudlin or a tear-jerker. Nothing can be further from the truth. Didion is foremost an essayist, not a novelist, given to writing precise, well distributed verbal arrangements that make their point strongly without betraying any hint of subjectivity. The temperature of her prose is always moderate, her tone composed and even, yet you know she is screaming. You know it because it is not possible to bear what she has borne and stay poised and articulate like she does mostly.

TYOMT may be read as a sort of warning, a handbook to prepare us for overwhelming grief – grief as opposed to sadness. As I was reading this book I remember thinking that how strange it was that the parents, schools and teachers who teach us so much about life, fail to teach and equip us to deal with grief – such a fundamental life experience. Such grief is always rooted in deep loss and though here, it is ostensibly the loss of a much-loved husband of 40 years, it could be the loss of your dog or the ability to sing anymore. Irreversible loss is loss after all.

One of the reasons I found her memoir compelling was because almost everything that Didion writes she did in the days following Dunne’s death, I remember having done at some point in my life. It is a strange mix of paranoia and superstition where you believe giving up your favourite food, will accomplish this, or not watching films for an entire year will accomplish that. I am sure such rituals of punishment are familiar to all of us. In Didion’s case they manifest in a slightly different manner. She refuses to give away John’s shoes wondering what would he wear when he returned. It is as if, by not entertaining certain unpleasant facts, she can avoid their eventuality. Almost obsessively she also avoids certain places and people, who she refers to as ‘vortex’, that she is afraid will trigger painful memories of John. This is the ‘magical thinking’ of the title – a clinical condition Freud refers to where we compulsively do certain things and avoid others to influence the outcome of a potentially hopeless situation .

Another reason why the book resonated with me is because like Didion I usually feel compelled to ‘act’, ‘to do’, ‘to understand’ when disaster strikes. Not for me the passive mourning. The ‘act’ is the only means I have to thwart disaster, it is the last defense in a callous universe. If I can analyse the roots of disaster, I can prevent them and maybe crawl out of them. It is like asking your lover, without breaking down, as he’s about to depart forever, ‘What do you think are those three traits in me which would keep a man from returning my love?” This is exactly what Didion does in the year following John’s death. She pores over autopsy reports and previous health records, and reads up extensively to ‘understand’ why what happened to John happened. We are told that she had been taught from childhood to “go to the literature” in “time of trouble,” read everything she could get her hands on. The aphorism ‘Knowledge is power’ never had a more avid disciple than in Didion. Didion’s first instinct after John's fatal heart attack in their apartment had been to try and "master" the event by doing everything she could to understand it. If she could marshal the facts, then surely she would be able to explain them. As if the explanation alone would lessen the suffering; as if loss can ever be explained.

Later, attempting to understand her own response to grief – the sense of disorientation, the physical symptoms, the feeling of fading away – she refers to medical journals by eminent psychiatrists and even an early 20th century book on “funeral etiquette,” by Emily Post where people tending to those who’d suffered a loss should “prepare a little hot tea or broth and it should be brought to them . . . without their being asked if they would care for it. Those who are in great distress want no food, but if it is handed to them, they will mechanically take it.” Didion endorses this book because, as she says, “There was something arresting about the matter-of-fact wisdom here. [Post] wrote in a world in which mourning was still recognized, allowed, not hidden from view.” Today, we inhabit a world where it is ok to talk of celebrity break-ups and corporate bailouts but a social taboo to reveal the soul’s ravaged centre.

A good book is supposed to change something intrinsic about you. As I read TYOMT, I resolved I’d have to stop crying about the things I usually do – films, books, street kids, personal matters. Somehow, it seemed a travesty that my only response to grief had been saline water. As a reader, I owed it to Didion to stop them. Strange, but true. Every time I approached a section where I felt their threatening presence, I’d put the book aside and force myself to think of something else, like she frequently does.

Towards the end Didion writes that this is the first book she has written after her 1st one which Dunne had not seen and commented on in the draft stage, hence it felt like a kind of betrayal and she wanted to get it off her chest as fast as she could. As you read, it becomes obvious that wise and old and privileged with a great imagination as she is, Didion never really imagined life without John. This is not just about grief, it is also about marriage as it should be.

One of the things that she says and I nodded to fiercely was that grief is nothing like what you expected - “"Grief when it comes, it is nothing we expect it to be" - therefore, you can never be prepared. Grief is intrinsically tied to loss and we are powerless to sufficiently anticipate and replicate loss until we are actually ravaged by it. To know grief is to experience meaninglessness. No wonder she says, “Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”

How do you face life after you have witnessed meaninglessness? “You write your way out of it,” Didion once said. Perhaps, she is correct. In a world where nothing remains and everything is meaningless, perhaps it is our words that offer any hope of salvation.


Shoumitro said...

Now I understand your last post.

Life is a hopelessly superior opponent that is bent upon crushing one till total subjugation takes place (my perception -- most of the time).

stonetemplepilot said...

when one begins to think in a world nothing remains and everything is meaningless even words wouldn't offer any hope of salvation. you know.

vaidegi j said...

wow! that was so good just reading it, or rather rushing thru it...have to reread it to pick out the gems, i wudve missed! strong forceful passionate writing!