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The Year of Magical Thinking opens with
the following words:
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
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Year of Magical Thinking!