His Shoes

Michael Wood

  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
    Fourth Estate, 227 pp, £12.99, October 2005, ISBN 0 00 721684 X

Grief has its reasons, or rather its mode of reasoning. The premises are wild, but the logic is irresistible. This is what Joan Didion means when she writes, in her title and on the page, of ‘magical thinking’: ‘thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome’. She also calls it ‘disordered thinking’, ‘delusionary thinking’, and speaks of a ‘fund of superstition’, of ‘occasions on which I was incapable of thinking rationally’. As time passes she reports that ‘the craziness is receding, but no clarity is taking its place.’ Clarity. This is the voice of Didion the mistress of form, the stylish, tireless enemy of muddle. I felt at first, reading this delicate, harrowing memoir, that Didion was being too insistent on her slippage from right reason, too hard on the alternative rationality of her thought. There is nothing disordered about the single-minded logic of grief. And what if the premises of a grief-ridden argument are not really wild, only out of line with the most stubborn, most literal facts of the case? Then I realised that the slippage was Didion’s subject. She couldn’t celebrate it, but she knew she had to be true to it.

Face the facts, we are told, accept the truth. Denial is a form of madness. Certainly, complete and direct denial is going to get us into all kinds of trouble, psychic and material. But partial, affective denial may be a loyalty to whatever the facts destroyed or replaced. Why should we let go mentally, in our stories, so to speak, of what we have already lost in every other sense? To refuse, at least initially, to accept the death of a person we love may be a way of working towards a memory that we can actually live with, that will leave us less alone. It’s possible that if we work too hard at being realistic, our love will become not just dead but too dead. There is a difference between being a memory and being only a memory.

On 30 December 2003, Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, sat down to dinner in their apartment in New York. They had been married for forty years. They had had their fights, they had thought about divorce, but there they were. ‘Marriage is memory,’ Didion writes, ‘marriage is time.’ Their only child, Quintana, in her late thirties and recently married, was in intensive care in the same city, suffering from pneumonia and septic shock. ‘I don’t think I’m up for this,’ Dunne had said a day or so before, referring to Quintana’s condition. Didion had said, with the calm authority which in this book becomes her refuge and her pathology: ‘You don’t get a choice.’ Now at dinner he is talking and Didion is mixing the salad. Then he’s not talking, he’s unconscious, fallen forward first against the table and then onto the floor. He is dead of a massive cardiac arrest, although the emergency services arrive swiftly and do what they can. At the hospital a young doctor looks nervous at the prospect of telling Didion the final news. A social worker says: ‘It’s OK. She’s a pretty cool customer.’

Quintana makes a fragile recovery and is able to attend her father’s funeral in New York on 23 March 2004. Two days later she collapses at the airport in Los Angeles, goes into convulsions, and is rushed to hospital for emergency neurosurgery. Didion spends five weeks in Los Angeles visiting Quintana every day, and trying to avoid the crowding memories of the 24 years she and Dunne lived in California, writing their books and their movies. ‘This seemed to be working,’ she says every time she starts a train of thought that takes her away from her husband and her child. Then it’s not working, the memories have found the road back to pain. It’s what she calls the ‘vortex effect’: everything, from a street name to a television advertisement, brings swirling into consciousness the most precise re-creations of what life was like when there was life. Then Quintana is strong enough to be moved back to New York, and begins what seems to be her real recovery. What is her real recovery, as far as this book knows. Didion starts writing on 4 October 2004 and finishes early in 2005. The last date she mentions is 31 December 2004, but the time must be a little later because she is writing of the year in the past tense.

I realise as I write this that I do not want to finish this account.

Nor did I want to finish the year.

The craziness is receding, but . . .

Quintana died between the time of this writing and the book’s appearance later in 2005.

The craziness has its stages, all of them clearly noted, often with an irony or a humour that are themselves forms of courage. ‘I wondered what an uncool customer would be allowed to do. Break down? Require sedation? Scream?’ In the word ‘allowed’, rather than ‘expected’, say, we hear Didion’s sense of discipline; and in the three questions a genuine distaste for losing one’s grip. Cool customers can suffer too; they’re just not noisy. And they don’t like to be condescended to. ‘Survivors . . . may look as though they are holding up well,’ Didion cites a textbook on bereavement as saying. ‘Because the reality of death has not yet penetrated awareness, survivors can appear to be quite accepting of the loss.’ ‘Here, then,’ she adds, ‘we had the “pretty cool customer” effect.’ What if you refuse to accept the loss precisely because the reality of death has penetrated your awareness, because that is just the reality you have it in mind to reverse? Then you become a cool customer who is also crazy, whose coolness is part of the craziness. ‘Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,’ Didion writes in one of those elegant, slightly underdressed sentences of hers. ‘We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.’

The reference is to one of her fantasies of the early days after Dunne’s death. She didn’t want to throw away his shoes because he would need them when he came back. He would need his clothes too. She didn’t want to donate his organs to medicine for the same reason. She thought, on her magical wavelength, that the point of a funeral is to complete the rites of return. ‘I did the ritual. I did it all . . . And it still didn’t bring him back.’ She is clear that she doesn’t believe in the resurrection of the body but still imagines ‘that given the right circumstances he would come back’. These fantasies constitute the first stage of denial, and lasted, Didion says, until August 2004. She was ‘trying to reverse time, run the film backward’. In the second stage she is still trying to reverse time but with a difference: ‘The difference was that all through those eight months I had been trying to substitute an alternate reel. Now I was trying only to reconstruct the collision, the collapse of the dead star.’

And then finally with the autopsy report – received 11 months late because Didion, lapsing into what a doctor calls a ‘cognitive deficit’, gave an old address rather than her current one – she reconstructs the collision, and the craziness recedes.

The craziness has a corollary and a context. You want the person you have lost to come back not only because you love them, and because you can’t bear the ‘unending absence’, but also because you think you could have saved them and you want a second chance. And if you are an American your culture teaches you to believe that death is an anomaly, the result of a failure to attend to the rules or buy the right product. ‘I fretted,’ Didion says, ‘over a Bayer commercial for a low-dose aspirin that was said to “significantly reduce” the risk of a heart attack,’ even though she knew that Dunne was already taking a far more powerful anticoagulant. She fretted over many similar belated promises of salvation, and finally acknowledged – what she had no doubt known all along – that this was precisely part of almost everyone’s magical thinking.

I realise how open we are to the persistent message that we can avert death.

And to its punitive correlative, the message that if death catches us we have only ourselves to blame.

The craziness recedes when Didion brings herself to believe that she is not to blame for Dunne’s death, and that he won’t need his shoes – even if she can’t bring herself to take his voice off the answering machine.

‘It’s not black and white,’ Didion remembers a young doctor saying in 1982 about the condition of a niece who was on the point of dying, a proposition that finds its way into Didion’s novel Democracy, where the sceptical and uncrazy heroine says: ‘Not black and white? Life and death?’ Of course there are several senses in which the doctor is right, and Didion touched on some of them in her essay on the Terri Schiavo case in the New York Review of Books last year. But there is also a single desolate sense in which Didion’s heroine is right and she still stands with her. One minute you’re alive. Then you’re not. The phrase ‘after long illness’ trails a ‘misleading suggestion of release, relief, resolution’. Of course death is ‘in the picture’ in such cases, as it was in Dunne’s case, who had had an angioplasty in 1987. ‘Yet having seen the picture in no way deflected, when it came, the swift empty loss of the actual event. It was still black and white.’

Didion’s previous book, Where I Was From, was a study of the myth of California, a vision of self-reliance peculiar even for America, informed by legends of a complete break with the Eastern past, the harsh 19th-century crossing of the Rockies to get to the golden land on the other side, where it turned out that self-reliance was not in any way incompatible with getting rich with the help of vast government handouts. The desert blossomed not because the settlers scraped and dug but because federal authorities built dams, and moguls made fortunes out of the railroad. Didion’s cool gaze picks up contradictions everywhere but she also realises that the contradictions are the point, precisely what the myth both denies and thrives on. Her word here is ‘muddle’ rather than ‘magic’ (although she does call herself muddled in The Year of Magical Thinking too). And she wants to step free of the muddle, as the odd tense of her title suggests (is it even idiomatic to ask someone where she ‘was’ from?).

She does and she doesn’t manage this. She comes to feel the break and the crossing, those stories of a brand new beginning and a character formed by hardship, ‘the dream of America, the entire enchantment under which I had lived my life’, are now remote from what she knows and does in New York, and above all from Quintana, an adopted child who doesn’t have to inherit those old ghosts of the blood. But she also knows that even wrong stories count as loss once you no longer have them, and when your parents die you think – note the new and equally strange tense – ‘where will I be from?’ In this book published before Dunne died and Quintana fell ill, Didion writes: ‘There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.’

There is no real way, but under pressure you fall back into schooled habits, a consolation rather different from magic. ‘In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control.’ But of course information is not control, and control itself may be a form of displacement. Nothing is more moving in The Year of Magical Thinking than Didion’s austere management of her sorrow, her worry about self-pity, a form of thinking more disordered, we may feel, than any of her transparent fantasies of return and reversal. Why self-pity? Perhaps because, she suggests, she was failing to understand that Dunne’s death was his death, something that had happened to him. ‘Because I was still understanding it as something that had happened to me . . . You see how early the question of self-pity entered the picture.’ Surely the question is out of line. Death is not an event in life, as Wittgenstein says, but other people’s dying is. This death did happen to her, and what else should she feel but sorry? Her worry about self-pity is itself a symptom of distress, part of the work of grief.

She holds on, though. She tells herself she has been lucky all her life. ‘The point, as I saw it, was that this gave me no right to think of myself as unlucky now. This was what passed for staying on top of the self-pity question.’ It’s a relief to see some irony enter this strange argument, but the pitch is still a little uncertain. ‘People in grief think a great deal about self-pity. We worry it, dread it, scourge our thinking for signs of it.’ There follows an eloquent paragraph about our ‘deep abhorrence’ of self-pity. ‘Self-pity remains both the most common and the most universally reviled of our character defects.’ But then ‘the grieving have urgent reasons, even an urgent need, to feel sorry for themselves.’ Does this sequence of thought amount to a defence of self-pity? Hardly. Our abhorrence of it is unkind, the need for it is genuine, but our worry about it seems unshakable, especially if we are any sort of cool customer. Come to that, most of us will readily think of half a dozen character defects more common and more universally reviled than self-pity. Much depends, I think, on where we were from, and whether or not we were taught self-reliance and other California dreams by graduates of the Donner Pass.

In an essay in The White Album, Didion says she remembers her ‘real joy at discovering for the first time how language worked, at discovering, for example, that the central line of Heart of Darkness was a postscript’. She has in mind the afterthought, ‘scrawled . . . in an unsteady hand’, to Kurtz’s high-minded report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’ It says a lot about Didion’s own writing that she lights on a fictional proposition that is so laconic and so apparently unplanned – even Kurtz seems to have forgotten it, Marlow says, since he is still eager to have his pamphlet published. But The Year of Magical Thinking suggests another character in Conrad, the first mate in Typhoon who believes he is not afraid because he is so calm. But then the differences set in.