Book Impressions: The Year of Magical Thinking: Joan Didion

There are scattered thoughts that beg compilation and order; a friend whose alliterative skills I admire, called it the ‘fettering of fragments’. I have many fragments that could be ‘fettered’ into a cohesive whole. But how does one collect these thoughts, reconcile each long-lasting impression that a person, a place, a piece of writing or a piece of music has on one, in a larger, meaningful context? They seem within reach, yet beat a hasty retreat and recede further into the depths of consciousness as I cast my net about. They emerge to tease and to tantalize in those languid moments of lulled senses, when all frantic activity in the brain has come to a complete stop, and only a sense of relaxation remains as I find myself easing into a dream. I then awake with a start, as if to say, “What was that?” I need to capture it, keep it, but I can’t, they leave me bereft and anxious. Perhaps an emotional landslide or a major event, that shakes the very foundations of ones existence, is necessary before one can begin a collection, or a compilation, in a quest for meaning, for clarity on the seemingly random nature of events.

I finished reading a book about loss, about grief; a retelling of events following the death of a loved one. Joan Didion’s book – The Year of Magical Thinking – has left a profound impression on me. It’s as if she herself was in the process of compiling these scattered fragments, from her past, as she wrote this account and tried to find a larger context for her grief. In 2003, while grappling with her daughter Quintana’s extended illness, that started as a flu, transformed into pneumonia and septic shock followed by an induced coma, she loses her husband of 40 years to a massive coronary. Her book seems to be about understanding grief and unlike other such accounts, it isn’t about “coming to terms” with grief or about “healing” after losing a loved one, it is more about her recollections of a marriage that was best described as one of intense togetherness and symbiosis. Joan and her husband John Gregory Dunne had spent very few moments apart from each other during forty years of togetherness. They were both writers, neither one needed to leave home and go to work or travel separately for work, they worked together in different rooms of the same house, bouncing ideas off each other; a togetherness, not dependence, that seems impossible to achieve in most marriages. She wants to make sense of this sudden tear in the fabric of her existence. She recollects moments from her past, homes in which they had lived, presents they had exchanged, times when she felt she hadn’t understood him or taken him seriously. She remembers things John said, like when Quintana, as a young child commented about the deaths and losses she was witnessing as a child and how unfair it all seemed he had said it all evened out in the end. Joan had interpreted that to mean that all the bad was eventually balanced by the good. Later on, on the occasion of another death of a close friend, the deceased friend’s wife had remarked about John’s comment to Quintana, saying how right he was. That’s when Joan realized that what he had really meant was that sooner or later bad news visits everyone, that it was just a matter of time. This fragment came back to her at the time of her own loss. How brutally stark and true those words were.

Through it all she searches for clues of whether she should have seen it coming, whether he himself had an inkling of death. She talks about her refusal to acknowledge his death, her need to keep him alive, and the blame she inevitably assigns herself irrespective of the fact that the circumstances were quite beyond her control.

Joan talks about her Episcopalian beginnings and rather seamlessly connects this with an education in geology. She quotes an Episcopalian litany – As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. She interprets this as, “the constant changing of the earth, the unending erosion of the shores and mountains, the inexorable shifting of geological structures that could throw up mountains and islands and could just as reliably take them away.” She believes this reflects a grand scheme in action that lends a certain inevitability to events. One senses her grasping for meaning while attributing meaninglessness to most things that happen, on ordinary days, at peaceful dinners, during beautifully temperate mornings like that of September 11, 2001, marking the line of demarcation between life and death in sharp relief. A particularly poignant passage is the one that describes her impressions of the Tsunami that wiped out several miles of coastline in the Indian Ocean. She says:

I am unable to stop trying to imagine this event.

There is no video of what I try to imagine. There are no beaches, no flooded swimming pools, no hotel lobbies breaking up like rotten pilings in a storm. What I want to see happened under the surface. The India Plate buckling as it thrust under the Burma Plate. The current sweeping unseen through the deep water. I do not have a depth chart for the Indian Ocean but can pick up the broad outline even from my Rand McNally cardboard globe. Seven hundred and eighty meters off Banda Aceh. Twenty-three hundred between Sumatra and Sri Lanka. Twenty-one hundred between the Andamans and Thailand and then a long shallowing toward Phuket. The instant when the leading edge of the unseen current got slowed by the continental shelf. The build p of water as the bottom of the shelf began to shallow out.

As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.

I am stunned at this association, a stillness follows, for the moment, as I absorb the beauty of her words and the thought behind it. The associations she makes in collecting the fragments of her religion, her education and her grief. A massive myocardial infarction, a liver that simply fails, terminal cancer, accidental death, even the drawing away of people, or the ending of relationships, they can all be thought of in terms of the shifting, changing nature of the earth itself, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end – indeed!

Her thought fragments, scattered through her book come together in a delicately woven blanket or shelter that she tries to stretch over her newly acquired vulnerability. One that causes her to stop wearing high heels, for fear that she would stumble and fall, one that doesn’t allow her to turn the lights off at night and one that keeps her away from her husband’s desk where she could see what he was reading or writing the day before or up to the last few hours of his life. The vulnerability is the most obvious symptom of those aggrieved. Through it all she, or rather a shell of her former self, also deals with Quintana’s prolonged illness, reassuring her child that she will always be around for her while questioning the parental need to offer this reassurance even as they know it isn’t true. Parents are ultimately the worst betrayers.

This was an intensely satisfying read, a piece of writing that appears to be superb feat of courage, stunning in its clarity, one that creates “oneness” of meaning for a reader who wants to collect, compile and integrate all randomness in her life into one seamless thought that takes her from beginning to end.

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