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.’

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