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The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion

Chapters 15 and 16

Chapters 13 and 14

Chapter 17

Summary

In the late winter of 2004, Didion agrees to cover the following summer’s Democratic and Republican conventions for the New York Review of Books, believing it will help get her back to a normal life. Soon after Quintana is discharged from Rusk, Didion attends the Democratic Convention in Boston. Since she has few family memories associated with the city, she believes she’ll be able to avoid falling prey to the vortex effect. However, while in the Fleet Center, Didion remembers that Quintana’s wedding had taken place exactly one year earlier and falls to tears. Seized with panic, she leaves the center and watches the rest of the convention from her hotel room. While waiting for her flight the next morning, she wonders how she can ever return the places she associates strongly with John, when even Boston seems too difficult.

Before her trip, she had clipped a New York Times article about physicist Stephen Hawking. Hawking had disavowed an earlier theory of his, in which he claimed that matter that entered a black hole could never be retrieved. The article had explained how this about-face held major consequences for science, since it implies that time can be reversed and therefore that outcomes can be changed. The story had struck Didion, but she doesn’t understand why until she attends the Republican Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York, a month later. Didion experiences the vortex effect when she remembers two previous moments in the Garden. In the first instance, she and John went to a Lakers-Knicks basketball game, an unusual event for the couple that prompted John to note that they “were not having any fun” in their lives, and to argue that they needed to do new, unexpected things. She also remembers how she covered the Democratic Convention in Madison Square Garden once before, in 1992, and how John would wait for her to eat dinner every night, even though she never got home until 11 p.m. After a few minutes of reminiscing, she realizes that she doesn’t believe she can change the outcome of those earlier events, but that since John’s death, she has been constantly trying to reverse time.

John would occasionally criticize the routine nature of their marriage. Didion knows his comments had something to do with Joe and Gertrude Black, a couple they had met while doing a lecture tour of Indonesia in 1980. Joe had left a position at the Rockefeller Foundation to teach political science at a university in Jogjakarta. The couple made a big impression on John, who saw them as a model for the kind of life he wanted he and Didion to live someday. John mentioned the Blacks a few times just before he died, so Didion searches his computer for their names. She finds them in a file John used to keep notes for an upcoming book. Next to their names John had typed “the concept of service.” Didion wonders if, by failing to be more like the Blacks, she and John had wasted their time. She sees that he last modified the file on the afternoon of his death, when they were working in their respective offices. Didion feels that, instead of working in separate rooms, they should have been together, like the Blacks.

Analysis

As Didion narrates her mourning process, she describes both progress and backsliding. She finds that when she can lock onto a routine she has the emotional and mental space to analyze her thoughts and slowly recover, but when introduced into unfamiliar circumstances she finds herself overwhelmed by the vortex effect. Routines engage her and give her a level of familiarity and comfort, but when introduced to new stimuli, such as the conventions, she finds herself caught up in whatever memories and associations she has with her new surroundings. Even though she has few personal associations with the city of Boston or Madison Square Garden, she finds that memories of John and Quintana are persistent and are perhaps triggered simply by the newness of her surroundings. While in the previous chapters she had made progress in understanding her mourning process, her attempts to reintegrate herself into the world and her work end up having the opposite effect, taking her out of her active process of mourning and making her subject to a passive experience of grief.

Didion realizes that, even when she was unhappy during John’s life, she never made an attempt to change her circumstances through either action or magical thinking, but that since he died she has wished to change everything. Didion makes a distinction between the surface changes people crave when they want to break out of a routine with an authentic desire for change that emerges when situations are truly untenable. John had wanted to break out familiar patterns, but only as a way to enliven and engage their relationship. After John died, Didion realized that any changes John proposed—such as going to basketball game—were minor, but that her desire to change every moment that had occurred since his death was indicative of a need for true change. In retrospect, she thinks that the changes John desired remained cursory because they had such a high level of satisfaction in their lives. To some extent, this may be an instance of Didion idealizing her relationship with John, but she takes pains to distinguish the previous times in her life when she expressed a need for change from her current situation, in which she desperately, truly wishes for things to be different.

John’s powerful reaction to meeting Joe and Gertrude Black in Indonesia represents a rare moment of disconnect between him and Didion. Didion has spent much of the book describing how rare and wonderful her marriage was, and everything suggests that John felt the same way. At the same time, the Blacks represented something that John felt was missing from their marriage. In his typed notes, John related the Blacks to “the concept of service,” and Didion connects this idea to a crossword clue in the morning paper, which read, “Fritter away.” Didion never explicitly states what kind of “service” she imagines John wanted them to undertake, or how exactly they wasted their time. Perhaps it was a feeling of spontaneity they lacked, the kind of impulsive abandon that might prompt a couple to leave their comfortable American life and move to Asia. Though in later chapters Didion discusses her and John’s tendency to “improvise,” it’s clear that, disregarding trips and vacations, she and John stayed close to the places that were comfortable and familiar: New York, Los Angeles, Hawaii. Perhaps John looked back at a life of relative wealth and privilege and wished that he had done more with those gifts. And yet, even though the implication that she and John had wasted their marriage stings Didion, she seems even more disturbed by the fact that she now has so many unanswered questions and will never be able to learn what John really meant in his cryptic notes. In the end, the only conclusion she can come to is that they should have been together when he typed those words. Closeness and intimacy, not service, were the great products of this relationship, and once again Didion is reminded how intense her loss has been. Her reaction, though incredibly poignant, is also somewhat ironic, since she finds herself wishing that she had spent more time with John, even though her devastation springs largely from the fact that the two were rarely, if ever, apart.

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