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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
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
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.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Year of Magical Thinking!