The Year of Magical Thinking opens with the following words:
“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.”
Joan Didion writes these lines shortly after the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. Later, she contemplates adding the line, “The ordinary instant,” but decides against it, claiming those words would be superfluous. She meditates on the ways in which tragic, life-changing events are often preceded by a feeling of normalcy. As an example, she cites reports of how calm the mornings of the Pearl Harbor and World Trade Center attacks seemed. She recalls how, in the weeks following John’s death, she would recount the details of his death to many friends, and she remembers the feeling of exhaustion that followed each retelling. She realizes that, in retelling her version of the night’s events, her story had become the accepted version, even though her account contradicts some of the actual facts.
Didion goes on to describe the night of December 30, 2003, when her husband, John, experiences a “massive coronary event” shortly after sitting down for dinner in their New York apartment. Earlier that day, they had visited their only child, Quintana, who was lying in a coma in an intensive care unit at Beth Israel Medical Center because of a flu that has deteriorated into pneumonia and septic shock. Didion tells us that this book will be her attempt to make sense of the period following her husband’s death. As a writer, she senses that meaning exists in words and the ways those words fit together. She wishes she could use a sort of digital editing system to tell her story, so that she could collapse time and show us the individual frames of her memories.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion weaves together personal observation and journalistic analysis to situate her experience of grief within a broader social context. In this first chapter, Didion coolly outlines the personal tragedies that struck her in December 2003, then contextualizes her grief by describing how her shock at the sudden and unexpected death of her husband mirrors societal responses to large-scale tragedies such as the Pearl Harbor and World Trade Center attacks. Didion doesn’t want to write a traditional memoir, which would simply recount, in a linear fashion, the tragic events of 2004. Rather, she wants to write a book that mirrors the way she thinks. People don’t think in neat, uninterrupted narratives, especially when they’re in a heightened mental state like grief. They think associatively, jumping randomly from memory to memory, comparing their experiences to other people’s experiences, and trying to find meaning from outside sources such as literature, history, or clinical material. Film is a medium better suited to such a disjointed narrative, since it can jump between image and image more readily than a written narrative. This is why Didion wishes she could use a digital editing system to structure her memoir.
Didion makes a larger point about how American society reacts to tragedy by discussing her misfortune in the context of other cataclysmic events. Although she references the Pearl Harbor and World Trade Center attacks, she doesn’t draw a direct comparison between these tragedies and hers or suggest that her feeling of grief is on par with the overwhelming anguish that followed those large-scale attacks. Rather, she uses those examples to describe a universal response to tragedy. In the aftermath of an unexpected tragic event, survivors inevitably attempt to locate warnings signs they might have missed as a way to comprehend what has happened. Didion is no different and is startled that there were no apparent indicators that she was about to lose her partner, collaborator, and husband of forty years.