Here's an advance peek at the New York Times' review of Joan Didion's new novel. As it's a "Times Select" (urgh) feature, you'd have to pay to allay. As I'm a subscriber, enjoy the view.
The Year of Magical Thinking: Goodbye to All That
By ROBERT PINSKY
Published: October 9, 2005
"O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne'er hung there." That fearsome landscape comes from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, quoted by Joan Didion early in her exact, candid and penetrating account of personal terror and bereavement.
The geological imagery conveys the disparity of scale between any mortal intelligence and those immense, lethal gulfs and mountains. It is a terrain often lied about, and routinely blurred by euphemism. Hopkins's phrase "Hold them cheap" suggests the bromides, clichés and evasions we resort to, because the cliffs of fall are too awful to confront. Didion's book is thrilling and engaging - sometimes quite funny - because it ventures to tell the truth: a traveler's faithful account of those harsh but fascinating cliffs. Hopkins's verbal music, his gorgeously stammered consonant-harmonies and syncopated cadences, expresses one of Didion's true reports: grief makes us crazy.
In December 2003, the only daughter of Didion and her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, fell into septic shock from a runaway pneumonia infection. Her doctors at New York's Beth Israel North put the young woman - she was married only five months earlier - into an induced coma. On the evening of Dec. 30, her parents returned from the hospital to their apartment. While the couple were talking over supper, John Gregory Dunne slumped in his chair with one hand raised, dying so suddenly that for a moment his wife mistook the event for a failed joke.
I NEED to explain here that "The Year of Magical Thinking" is not a downer. On the contrary. Though the material is literally terrible, the writing is exhilarating and what unfolds resembles an adventure narrative: a forced expedition into those "cliffs of fall" identified by Hopkins. As in Didion's previous writing, her sense of timing, sentence by sentence and in the arrangement of scenes, draws the reader forward. Her manner is deadpan funny, slicing away banality with an air that is ruthless yet meticulous. She uses few adjectives. The unshowy, nearly flat surface of her writing is rippled by patterns of repetition: an understatement that, like Hemingway's, attains its own kind of drama. Repetition and observation narrate emotion by demonstrating it, so that restraint itself becomes poetic, even operatic:
"I had entered at the moment it happened a kind of shock in which the only thought I allowed myself was that there must be certain things I needed to do. There had been certain things I had needed to do while the ambulance crew was in the living room. I had needed for example to get the copy of John's medical summary, so I could take it with me to the hospital. I had needed for example to bank the fire, because I would be leaving it. There had been certain things I had needed to do at the hospital. I had needed for example to stand in the line. I had needed for example to focus on the bed with telemetry he would need for the transfer to Columbia-Presbyterian."
This is the opposite of hack "vividness." Instead of modifiers or the conventions of "description," the repeated, vague, nearly meaningless phrases "certain things" and "for example" and "needed to do" dramatize both the inner numbness of shock and the outer reality of the emergency, a terminal reality that is uniquely complicated and simple.
(JD, San Francisco 1955.)
I focus on language because Didion tells her story largely by tracing a kind of dance between two kinds of deceptive language: on one side, there is the half-secret, personal language of "magical thinking" that creates needs, interdictions, omens: I need to be in the one city where the dead person would return, if he came back; I cannot give away certain of that person's shoes; the dead sea gull and the typo and the undeleted e-mail message are signs. That internal voice, "magical thinking" denying its own desperation, whispers that the funeral ritual will restore what is lost. It says that reading the obituary would be a betrayal. Didion quotes the mother of a 19-year-old killed by a bomb in Kirkuk who tells herself that as long as she doesn't let the uniformed messenger into her house, he cannot deliver the news she knows he is bearing.
On the other side, equally evasive, more subtly irrational, there are the voices of society. When a friend tells us about a terrible diagnosis, we may need to respond with an anecdote about someone we know whose brother-in-law survived just that illness with no problem, or we need to tell about an herbal tea that produces miraculous cures. Telling those in grief that they are "bearing it very well" or "being strong" can be not only presumptuous, but coercive: the voice of conventionality saying it does not want to be disturbed. These stoical platitudes represent a communal, anonymous kind of magical thinking or denial of reality. With her perfect-pitch ear for plausible humbug, words used to dismiss or look away from a reality, Didion notes a social worker on the night of the death telling the doctor: "She's a pretty cool customer." She reflects: "I wondered what an uncool customer would be allowed to do. Break down? Require sedation? Scream?"
In relation to her daughter's life-threatening illness, involving a second coma and crisis after one recovery, Didion reflects on the class of very successful people who believe "absolutely in their own management skills," the power of telephone numbers: the right doctor or donor or politician. This language of privilege that knows its resources, too, becomes at a certain point an evasion: everyone alive, all of us, are at best temporary kings.
These social voices are at an intimate level. On another level, there are the larger, more official voices of organizations and of history. The daughter recovers, then has another medical crisis, so that we can hear the jargon of hospitals, the argot and manners of nurses, in New York and Los Angeles. No easy joke at their expense: in Didion's account her own protective ferocity is at least as comic as the covert bullyings and evasions of the health professions. Her daughter eventually survives the second crisis too, events thus supplying a double plot: grief and anxiety.
As Didion remarks, grief is "the most general of afflictions," yet it has been written about less than one might expect. Here is a striking, characteristically unexpected and revealing sequence of contrasting efforts to mine culture for germane words about grief. First, Didion recalls a college professor talking about Walter Savage Landor's 1806 poem "Rose Aylmer." The professor pointed out the deliberately hyperbolic first four lines ("Ah, what avails the sceptered race! / Ah, what the form divine! / What every virtue, every grace! / Rose Aylmer, all were thine"). Then, in a phrase that impressed the undergraduate Didion, the teacher praised the "hard sweet wisdom" of the last two lines: "A night of memories and of sighs / I consecrate to thee." Didion reports: " 'A night of memories and sighs,' I remembered the lecturer repeating. A night. . . . he says a night, not a matter of a lifetime, a matter of some hours."
Hard sweet wisdom.
That "hard sweet wisdom" - the literary critical phrase that once seemed strong - after experience feels jejune. She describes the defenseless, disoriented look that is the face of grief, then returns to the classroom memory:
"These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal. I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved. . . . I understood for the first time the meaning in the practice of suttee. Widows did not throw themselves in the burning raft out of grief. The burning raft was instead an accurate representation of the place to which their grief (not their families, not the community, not custom, their grief) had taken them. On the night John died we were 31 days short of our 40th anniversary. You will have by now divined that the 'hard sweet wisdom' in the last two lines of 'Rose Aylmer' was lost on me."
The defiant reversal and exaggeration - suttee as representing individual will - joins another reversal, the rejection of that phrase "hard sweet wisdom" that now seems glib. The exaggeration of the poem's hyperbolical opening is vindicated: it seems that in grief we need the most extravagant gestures hyperbole can devise.
But that need has a counterweight or opposite, as well. Didion remembers the poem and the professor and she also reads other books, including medical texts. She wants their precise knowledge as she wanted an autopsy performed on her husband's body. In psychiatric writing about bereavement she finds the sentence, "Because the reality of death has not yet penetrated awareness, survivors can appear to be quite accepting of the loss." Didion comments dryly, "Here, then, we had the 'pretty cool customer' effect."
She is less patient with a psychiatric paper that says blandly, "Using our understanding of the psychodynamics involved in the patient's need to keep the lost one alive, we can then explain and interpret the relationship that had existed between the patient and the one who died." Didion makes this language, so complacently unaware of its own inadequacy, the more absurd by making her own loathing for it absurd.
For one text she expresses unqualified admiration. Didion quotes an extended passage remarkably superior, in form and content, to the medical "we can explain and interpret" sentence just quoted. She justly respects this for its cogency and insight: "Persons under the shock of genuine affliction are not only upset mentally but are all unbalanced physically. No matter how calm and controlled they seemingly may be, no one can under such circumstances be normal. Their disturbed circulation makes them cold, their distress makes them unstrung, sleepless."
The author is the etiquette master Emily Post, writing in her 1922 handbook of manners a chapter entitled "Funerals." Didion clearly enjoys giving credit to Post over the clumsy psychiatric book and the shallow poetry teacher, but her point about inner life and outer expectations is important.
The old-fashioned writer on manners has advice about where to sit at the funeral, and about what sort of food to offer the bereaved. She makes observations about the physiology of grief - which is to say, about the body, that boundary area between the mountainous regions of grief inside and the busy, preoccupied world of society outside. Emily Post undertakes the acknowledgment and incorporation of grief as part of the ordinary world - not as the special work of experts like the social worker at Beth Israel North, ready to relieve the doctors and stand in for that old set of customs and practicalities. Didion says of Post's chapter, "It spoke to me directly." She says of the physical cold she felt on that first night of grief: "Mrs. Post would have understood that. She wrote in a world in which mourning was still recognized, allowed."
Joan Didion's essays have treated their occasions so vividly - for instance, San Francisco runaways in the late 1960's, or a Los Angeles murder trial, or John Wayne - it may not be apparent that their subject has always been loss. Literally conservative in the old sense of "conservation," she has reported the vanishing of an old provincial California, the erosion of an old idea of childhood, fading ideas of manhood or of town life. Unsentimental, amused, impatient with cant, she has been a meticulous observer of social changes less in themselves than in their effects on her own sensibility. In "The Year of Magical Thinking," she isolates a shard of memory, an occasion when John Gregory Dunne said, in the allusive way of marital conversation, "You were right about Hawaii." She remembers those words, and she writes:
"He may have meant that I had been right a day or so before when I said that when Quintana got better (this was our code for 'if she lives') we could rent a house on the Kailua beach and she could recuperate there. Or he may have meant that I had been right in the 1970's when I wanted to buy a house in Honolulu. I preferred at the time to think the former but the past tense suggested the latter. He said these things in the taxi between Beth Israel North and our apartment either 3 hours before he died or 27 hours before he died, I try to remember which and cannot."
The scrupulous attention here is concentrated on the past, on a specific fragment of speech, on memory - but in a sense the attention to the detail is only incidental: the passionate focus is on its emotional meaning, on the mind and its limits and lacunae. Didion is ultimately less like a camera than a precise seismograph.
Frank Bidart in his poem "The Arc" has a character say, "I tell myself: 'Insanity is the insistence on meaning.' " That unreasonable insistence seems to rise like an involuntary cry when we step into the landscape of loss. In Didion's formulation:
"Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself."
The absence is meaningless, but memory can retrieve meaning, or at least partial meaning: "You were right about Hawaii" does not mean nothing. Didion makes a distinction between grief, which is passive, and mourning, which like Mrs. Post's instructions is active. She adduces Stephen Hawking's announcement that he was wrong 30 years earlier to say that information swallowed by a black hole could never be retrieved. The Times reported this change of mind in 2004 as significant because it preserves science's ability to "run the proverbial film backward and reconstruct what happened in, say, the collision of two cars or the collapse of a dead star into a black hole."
By attending ferociously to the course of grief and fear, Didion arrives at the difference between "the insistence on meaning" and the reconstruction of it. This live, sharp, memorable book notes that distinction and embodies it: "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."
Didion recounts two ordeals of contemporary life likely to await even the most comfortable Americans: one is the unexpected collapse, with the arrival of an E.M.T. team, transforming everything with a sudden overthrow; the other is the hospital vigil, dealing with technologies and technicalities, nurses and administrators, doctors who can seem superhuman or subhuman.
Those two experiences, the crisis of mortality instantaneous or prolonged, can seem like alternatives; in the little space of time covered by "The Year of Magical Thinking" Didion undergoes both. Within the book, the two outcomes are different, but in August her only daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, died in a New York hospital. The news story reporting this event closes with Didion's response to the idea of changing her book at this point. "It's finished," she says, with characteristic terseness holding the ground where literary judgment and dignity are the same.
(The Dunnes, NYC, 1970.)