Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is one of the books that I didn’t plan to read but did. One day last month, I had to do an errand and passed by the secondhand bookshop. I took this book out because I wasn’t bringing any book with me and began reading it on my way home. I prefer other kinds of books to memoirs but there was nothing decent that was cheap enough for my pocket so I picked it up (and I’m glad I did).
At first, I had no idea what the book was about except for some vague notion of it being about Didion’s life. I was more of a hurry than usual and didn’t check the inside flap blurb. This is what the book is about:
It is now, as I begin to write this, the afternoon of October 4, 2004.
Nine months and five days ago, at approximately nine o’clock on the evening of December 30, 2003, my husband, John Gregory Dunne, appeared to (or did) experience, at the table where he and I had just sat down to dinner in the living room of our apartment in New York, a sudden massive coronary event that caused his death. Our only child, Quintana, had been for the previous five nights unconscious in an intensive care unit… where what had seemed a case of December flu sufficiently severe to take her to an emergency room on Christmas morning had exploded into pneumonia and septic shock. This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends… (p. 6-7)
Didion’s daughter Quintana, I learned from some article searched on Google, would later die months after the book was released. This is a moving and honest book, made more interesting to me, because it deals with the lives of the couple who are both full-time writers.
One of the many insights in the book is Didion’s contrast of the past and present treatment of death and mourning in the West. Unlike today, “mourning was still recognized, allowed, not hidden from view” in the past:
Philippe Aries, in a series of lectures he delivered at Johns Hopkins in 1973 and later published as Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, noted that beginning about 1930 there had been in most Western countries and particularly in the United States a revolution in accepted attitudes toward death. “Death,” he wrote, “so omnipresent in the past that it was familiar, would be effaced, would disappear. It would be shameful and forbidden.” The English social anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, in his 1965 Death, Grief, and Mourning, had described this rejection of public mourning as a result of the increasing pressure of a new “ethical duty to enjoy oneself,” a novel “imperative to do nothing which might diminish the enjoyment of others.” (p. 60)
This is a phenomena that noted Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek would diagnose as a symptom inherent in the dominant contemporary, free-market, consumer cultures. Eric Dean Rasmussen explains in the Electronic Book Review: ‘Žižek argues that the superego injunction to enjoy transgressive pleasures has become the new Norm, and “the price we pay for the absence of guilt is anxiety” Our generalized anxiety, which arises because we feel obligated to enjoy, provides various others – corporations, employers, advertisers, politicians, etc. – new means of psychologically manipulating us.’
The searing cultural insights aside, The Year of Magical Thinking is a really touching book about coming to terms with reality. ■