Posted on Aug 31, 2015 in Non-fiction

by Joan Didion
Alfred A. Knopf, 2005

Life changes fast
Life changes in the instant
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends
The question of self-pity

Notes scribbled in a writer’s journal — the first words Joan Didion records after “it happened,” after her husband of 40 years fell face forward onto his dinner plate, dead of a heart attack. She had stepped back into the kitchen to get something they needed and returned to find him thus, his hand raised. She thought it was a joke. She told him to stop. He couldn’t.

You may know all this already. And you may have chosen not to read this memoir because you are afraid it will be too sad. Especially if you know that only a few months after completely the manuscript for The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion’s only child, her daughter Quintana, would also die. Too much death, too much tragedy.

And yet — if you can — do read it. Let author’s spare, “cool” (you’ll know why “cool” once you’ve read the book) prose lead you through the labyrinth of grief.

Perhaps I read this memoir so willingly because I prefer to be prepared. Didion’s words echo my inclination, “In time of trouble I have been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control.” (p.44)

In The Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion has begun the research I may need one day. She ponders C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, and the findings of William Worden of the Harvard Child Bereavement Study. She quotes studies of bereaved spouses and relatives. And reads Emily Post, that maven of civilized behavior, who knew much more about the proper way to attend to the breaved because death, in those days, was a frequent visitor.

She also turns to the poets. There she finds her own emotions distilled, and is comforted by those who have grieved before her. Gerard Manley Hopkins , I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day. And W.H. Auden:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Her form is not rigid, not chronological. She darts back and forth through time. This is a journal of emotions, memories. And scattered throughout, are italicized fragments — quotes, words exchanged, scenes remembered. Their reappearance reminds me of poetic refrains. Or perhaps, more somberly, the repetitive, sonorous toll of funeral bells.

She does not give us platitudes or sugary hope. She is raw and real and strange. And she testifies that grief can make us crazy.

One person commented to me that he was a bit disconcerted by what seemed unecessary “name dropping.” The famous people she knew, the elite resorts where she stayed, the prestigious hotels where she lived for weeks at a time when she and her husband were working on a screen play, or Quintanna lay close to death in a nearby hospital.

I experienced that differently than he did. What I heard, just beneath the surface, was a bewilderment, that despite such accomplishments, such success, life could still “change in an instant.” She knows better that that. And yet – when all is well, how can we imagine it will be so entirely other, so quickly.

Now, so acutely aware of what can happend, she is often tempted to say to couples she hears bickering, “Stop. You don’t have that much time.”

This one will go on the shelf I reserve for books that “point the way.” Unless I depart this good life before all those I love, I know I will want to “talk” with her again.

Note: If you want to hear Diane Rehm’s interview with Joan Didion see: wamu.org/programs/dr where you can listen to it on-line or order a CD or cassette. It will be listed in the archives for 10/27/05 the second hour of the show.