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To understand Joan Didion’s character in this, her highly
personal memoir, it’s important to place The Year of Magical
Thinking in context with her larger body of work, and to
understand the public, writerly persona she developed in her earlier
books and articles.
One of the most respected journalists and writers that
emerged from the New Journalism movement, Joan Didion became famous in
intellectual circles for her incisive, thoughtful commentaries on American
culture and politics. She was unique among her peers for her distinctive
style. Didion’s prose is pared down, rigorous, and formal—even as
she addresses complex political and social issues—and often juxtaposes
seemingly unrelated stories and images. Like many New Journalists,
she explicitly uses her own voice and impressions of a given situation,
breaking away from the standard of objectivity that was the hallmark
of traditional American journalism. She introduces herself as a
character in her own essays so that her own opinions and ideology
interact with the objective facts of the story. Still, she strives
to achieve a balance in her work, engaging with her subjects on
a personal level while maintaining an emotional distance. Her detachment
has led many critics to comment that she comes across as chilly
and distanced in her books and essays.
In contrast, The Year of Magical Thinking gives
unique insight into Joan Didion’s personal life. More than ever
before, her private thoughts and emotions are on display. The book
unfolds less like a traditional, well-structured literary narrative
and more like memory itself. It is written in a stream-of-consciousness
style, in which ideas are introduced and repeated, images and memories
get triggered unexpectedly, and information is processed in real
time and then integrated into the overall narrative. In this book,
Didion doesn’t simply tell us how she thinks: she shows us.
Despite this unexpectedly personal shift in her writing style, however,
Didion’s inner self continues to remain elusive throughout The
Year of Magical Thinking. Though she invites the reader
into her most personal memories and thoughts, the narrative is ultimately
driven by her reasoned, unemotional analysis of the grief process.
By taking a highly intellectual approach and sprinkling her cool-headed
text with deeply personal confessions, she manages to make her memoir
feel confidential while still keeping herself emotionally distanced
from the reader.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Year of Magical Thinking!