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The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion

Chapter 2

Chapter 1

Chapters 3 and 4

Summary

After returning from visiting Quintana on the night of December 30, Didion and her husband begin preparing dinner. After getting John a drink, she realizes he has stopped talking and finds him slumped over in his chair. At first, she thinks he’s playing a joke, but she soon calls an ambulance. The paramedics arrive and immediately begin working. Fearing that the emergency workers will leave for the hospital without her, Didion grabs her purse and John’s medical records. They leave for New York Presbyterian Hospital, and when they arrive the gurney vanishes into the building. A man approaches Didion and introduces himself as her social worker. Looking back at that moment, Didion realizes that that was precisely when she knew John was dead. She goes on to describe how, in a state of denial, she had stood in lines and followed procedures, thinking about how to get John transferred to another hospital. When the doctor finally delivers official word of his death, the social worker reassures the doctor that Didion is a “pretty cool customer.” They take her to see the body and a priest delivers last rites. After collecting John’s personal effects, she takes a taxi home and wonders what kind of extreme reaction an “uncool customer” would be allowed to have. She feels overwhelmed with the sense that she needs to discuss the situation with John.

The next day, Didion goes to the funeral home to select a coffin, but her thoughts remain focused on Quintana. Eight months later, in an attempt to establish the timeline of the night’s events, Didion checks her building’s doorman’s log and realizes the paramedics were in the apartment for forty-five minutes, although it had felt quicker. At the hospital, she authorizes an autopsy. Though the idea of cutting open John’s body disturbs her, she feels the need to know how and why he died.

While at dinner several weeks earlier, John had asked Didion to jot down an idea about “the militarization of sports” in her notebook, which she found odd since he always carried his own note cards. The next day, John told her she could use the idea for her own book, which now makes her wonder if he somehow knew his time was running out and that he wouldn’t be able to use the idea himself. Didion recalls how, in the weeks before he died, John often reminisced about a summer they spent in Brentwood, where they had a fixed routine of relaxing by the pool, writing, and watching a BBC series called Tenko. Didion quotes from Philippe Ariès’ The Hour of Our Death, which describes how, in the medieval French epic poem Chanson de Roland, the hero Gawain seems to have advance notice of his death’s arrival.

Grief, Didion tells us, is not what we expect it to be. When her parents died, she says, her pain was mitigated by the fact that she knew their deaths were inevitable and their passing didn’t substantively affect her daily routines. In contrast, John’s death is all-consuming. She refers to a study by psychologist Eric Lindemann about the phenomenon of waves of grief. These waves begin for Didion when she first returns, alone, to the apartment. Lynn Nesbit, the couple’s longtime agent, comes over and calls the obituary writer for the New York Times. Didion doesn’t know how to react, since an obituary would be public proof that John has actually died. Didion reassures Lynn that she will be fine spending the night alone, and she maintains her composure until the following morning, when she awakes and cannot remember why she is alone in the bed. Though she knows John is dead, she has to believe that the situation is somehow reversible, a belief that begins her year of magical thinking.

Analysis

Didion finds herself unable to accept or acknowledge John’s death either publicly or privately, despite being able to follow the social procedures required of her. While she is able get through certain tasks, such as signing off on an autopsy report or selecting a coffin, she remains a “cool customer,” numb to the reality of her husband’s death. Her response isn’t simple denial, however, because her reaction indicates that she finds the situation implausible, as opposed to something she understands but could not accept. Didion sees herself as an active agent who needs to take stock of the situation she has been given. Once she understands her options, she believes, she will be able to follow a course of action that will bring John back. Although she exhibits a resolute demeanor to the outside world, Didion has less control over her condition than she thinks she does.

As an acutely perceptive writer and social critic, Didion is trained to anticipate situations by examining trends and warning signs. She attempts to make sense of John’s sudden death by applying her reporter’s logic to the months leading up to his death. Looking back on the months before John died, she reconsiders situations that at the time seemed unusual but inconsequential. In retrospect, she sees these moments as warnings and chastises herself for failing to recognize their significance. She believes that she had somehow missed the signal John himself received, comparing her husband to Gawain, the hero of the Chanson de Roland, one of many literary sources Didion alludes to throughout The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion tries to piece together the warning signs in order to make John’s death seem more logical. If she can articulate the trends and patterns that anticipated the event, she might be able to get a handle on it. By attempting to place John’s death in an intellectual and logical framework, however, she keeps herself removed from the emotional realities of the situation.

Didion’s detached writing style has caused many critics of The Year of Magical Thinking—as well the critics of her earlier novels and essays—to accuse her of being cold, unfeeling, and self-absorbed. However, the coolness of her writing, which contrasts with the emotional, highly confessional tone used in many contemporary memoirs, belies the book’s emotional complexity. Particularly when reconstructing tragic events, Didion avoids commenting on her own emotional reactions, choosing instead to offer a purely factual account of what happened. However, in her straight reportage of the events, she also gives us glimpses into her own, irrational thought processes. Rather than highlighting her disturbed emotional state by calling attention to it explicitly, Didion follows a typically New Journalist technique of putting the reader right in the middle of the action, allowing us to discover, through small clues, how grief and shock caused her to unravel.

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