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On my flight to New York I had sat beside a woman who said her husband of fifty-one years had passed away the year before. When I mention Didion’s belief that we are not allowed time to grieve, her eyes fill with tears. “After just a few days,” she says, “even friends don’t want to hear about it. They would rather you act ‘normal.’”
Normal has never been acceptable to Joan Didion. Normal suggests a lack of curiosity, laziness, an unseeing eye. Nor has she time for cynicism or dreaminess. She scratches away at actual experience, to reveal its context and roots. Part of her philosophy, she says, is this: how much we learn in life is based on our ability to be self-aware. “If you don’t know what you’re learning, you’re not learning it,” she says. “I mean, if you can’t register what the experience is, the experience hasn’t happened in a way.”
The reading’s moderator, Philip Gourevitch, editor of The Paris Review, told me he admires Didion for her “incredible clarity in a plain American voice.” She has, he says, “an unflinching gaze for looking at things. She's not interested only in how something presents itself, but what's really there.” It is a rare writer, Gourevitch points out, whose magazine pieces are being read forty years later, both for the quality of the information and as enduring literature. Didion achieves her remarkable clarity, he says, because “quite often she is cutting through conventional wisdom, preconceptions, and misapprehensions. She makes the whole process of thinking part of the process of observation and
For the reading in Central Park, Didion has selected pages from early in The Year of Magical Thinking. She is coming home from the hospital with her husband’s wallet, keys, and clothes. Alone.
I remember thinking that I needed to discuss this with John. There was nothing I did not discuss with John. Because we were both writers and both worked at home our days were filled with the sound of each others’ voices.
I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted. There was no separation between our investments or interests in any given situation. Many people assumed that we must be, since sometimes one and sometimes the other would get the better review, the bigger advance, in some way ‘competitive,’ that our private life must be a minefield of professional envies and resentments. This was so far from the case that the general insistence on it came to suggest certain lacunae in the popular understanding of marriage.
That had been one more thing we discussed.
What I remember about the apartment the night I came home alone from New York Hospital was its silence.
Unexpectedly, it starts to rain, but few rise to leave. Instead, hundreds of people take out newspapers, unfold them, and use them for hats. Twenty minutes later the rain picks up, becomes a pounding storm, and an organizer announces the evening will be cut short. Still, Didion will sign books in a nearby tent.
More than two hundred people wait, soaked and cold in driving rain. When they finally reach the signing table, many are beaming. One young man hands over a Dutch copy of Magical Thinking for her signature; another copy is Portuguese. One teenage girl tells the writer she is “the awesomest.” Through it all Didion sits: tiny, quiet, smiling a small smile. Even.
Trillin, just back from a national tour for his latest book, says he is surprised by how many people have told him they had read The Year of Magical Thinking. “Writers often don’t quite anticipate who’s going to read them,” he says. “She hit a chord.”
It’s true. After decades of writing for political junkies and culture critics, Didion is suddenly speaking to a wider audience. The Year of Magical Thinking won the National Book Award and is being made into a Broadway play, starring Vanessa Redgrave. Sales of hardcover copies of the book are about to surpass 600,000.
This suggests a need that is not being fulfilled. Our culture’s worship of youth is disconnected from common experience. We need a serious discussion about the end of life—and those left behind. Looking for help in the literature on grief, Didion found—as so many people do—that much of it is trite or otherwise unreadable.
Death, Didion says, is the one thing “we refuse to think about, refuse to contemplate, and refuse to admit happens.” She can recall proof of her own fear. When John and Quintana were sitting in the living room discussing the organ-donor forms on their driver’s licenses, Didion rushed in to change the subject. She couldn’t stand to listen to them; the thought of their dying was too painful. John’s certainty that he would die of a heart attack, and his history of heart trouble—these too she refused to accept.
Denial of death in our society has reached the point, Didion says, where we share this common belief: “Somehow you’re at fault if you die.” Following John’s death she experienced both blame and guilt. “You berate yourself. The survivors are among those who are afflicted by this belief that ‘they did it to themselves,’ or ‘I could have prevented it.’ There's still a feeling, an inchoate assumption that if you're living right, if you're taking care of yourself, you won't die.”
She is mystified that the denial of death has us so firmly in its clutches. “It’s very peculiar because this denial occurs most often in Christian nations, but death is at the very center of the Christian story. ‘He that believeth in me shall never die.’” Of course resurrection is at the center of the story, too, “but it’s not a literal resurrection,” she says. “After death I don’t think you’re aware of what John called ‘the eternal dark.’ I don’t think you are you.” And although we know better than to nurture them, she says, “we still have primitive beliefs.”
Didion says the book's unexpected popularity can partly be explained by demographics: baby boomers are starting to reach an age when people they know are dying, and they are finally becoming aware of their own mortality. She is pleasantly surprised to discover that some people are reading Magical Thinking not so much for its insights into life and death and grief and dying, but because it is uplifting and offers something to aspire to.
“What surprised me when traveling with it” she says, “was the number of very young women who came up to speak to me in airports and other places. I realized at some point that they were reading it as a love story. They were reading about a marriage.
“That he died was just a cautionary tale.”