Pain Without Gain
The Year of Magical Thinking
reviewed by Harold K. Bush
Mark Twain once said: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” But some of our most influential people have allowed themselves to become the most naked of people. The prophets all stood naked before God; Augustine was most poetic as he unclothed himself; and Emily Dickinson, hidden most of the time behind her bedroom door, revealed her deepest secrets in her majestic verse. The glory of transparency is why so much of Walt Whitman’s revolutionary poetry of the 1850s involved, scandalously enough, naked human bodies, and why many of Flannery O’Connor’s characters learn the truth at the moment of exposure.
Joan Didion has recognized the power of nakedness since her career began. A striking aspect of her stylistic gift has always been her willingness to reveal secrets. In an essay in The White Album called “In Bed,” she describes the severe migraine headaches that have plagued her for much of her adult life. There she writes, “The physiological error called migraine is . . . central to the given of my life.” One reads these lines and wonders how, given the regularity of such brutal pain, she can write such elegant prose.
The essay supplies an answer: “The migraine has acted as a circuit breaker, and the fuses have emerged intact. There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria. I open the windows and feel the air, eat gratefully, sleep well. I notice the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. I count my blessings.”
When I first met Didion in 2002, she was struggling with various kinds of physical pain, much of it chronic. She told me that she still suffered regularly from those same migraine headaches. In her art as well, pain has always remained a crucial concern, and she has been exceptionally sensitive to the “physiological errors” of the American body politic, the migraines of our culture. Perhaps the personal pain somehow allowed her to respond even more richly to public pain.
Nakedness, pain, vulnerability: These aspects of Didion’s work have never been more prominent than in The Year of Magical Thinking, winner of the National Book Award in 2005 and huge best-seller ever since its release. The book chronicles the sudden illness of her daughter Quintana, who fell into a coma on Christmas morning of 2003, and the sudden death of her husband John Gregory Dunne from cardiac arrest at the dinner table a few days later.
The book’s major achievement is the articulation of the mood or tone of grief.
It is a sustained and often riveting account of one person’s close encounter with the powers of horror and grief, written on a sophisticated yet intimate level, and as such it ranks with other bereavement narratives of high literary achievement, such as C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, which Didion invokes.
If pain and nakedness are central themes of Didion’s career, then The Year of Magical Thinking is her crowning achievement. In one interview in 2005, she tried to summarize her intentions: “To bring death up close. . . . Nothing I read about grief seemed to exactly express the craziness of it, which was the interesting aspect of it to me—how really tenuous our sanity is.”
Death Up Close
As in King Lear, or Matthew Brady’s alarming Civil War photographs, Didion succeeds almost too well in bringing death up close. She obsessively consults any and all writings on the topic of grief that might provide clues to her own wildly unpredictable mental states, from clinical psychologists (especially mid-century Freudians) to Emily Post’s etiquette manuals. She becomes fixated on eyes, particularly as the medical markers of death when they dilate, and admits a desire to be present for the autopsy of her dead husband.
The social worker at the hospital where they have taken his body delights in reporting that Didion is “a pretty cool customer.” She repeats this claim throughout the book as an irony; she is not so cool after all, she seems to be claiming, but nearing the brink of madness. Yet her approach to the clinical aspects of grief is often cold and scientific.
The book opens by focusing on the concept of “ordinariness,” a common element in most accounts of tragedy. “Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” She repeats these lines frequently throughout the book. She notes that “confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred.”
She invokes national moments of trauma. Witnesses of Pearl Harbor universally remember “what an ‘ordinary Sunday morning’ it had been.” September 11, 2001, “dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States.” Tragedy catches us unawares, without warning, and changes everything.
At the beginning of the book, Didion describes it as her attempt to make sense of grief, as about the “weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death . . . about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.”
But she fails at achieving any such sense—other than a growing understanding of the fact that “grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be” and her recognition of “the power of grief to derange the mind.” Her random quotes from a variety of literary texts at awkward moments illustrate this derangement. The book mimics the yearlong anguish of the author.
With The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion takes her career-long fixation on suffering to a new level, but one must be struck by the sheer horror of her lack of any metaphysical resources to help her through the night. The title calls such resources “Magical Thinking”: a concept that she associates with her husband coming back, but that also seems to include any Christian hope in an ultimate reunion with the dead.
Calling it “magical thinking” is a tip, I suppose, that the author, one of her generation’s hippest and most cosmopolitan intellectuals, thinks such a hope at best a leftover symptom of magical, primitive superstition, and at worst a sort of delusion. She expresses her need to get beyond any belief that the living has any continuing bond with the dead person she loved, or that she will be reunited with him in the future. The burden of the book is the need to get beyond “magical thinking.” At most, it should only last a year.
Her discussions of religious or Christian subjects are brief but poignant, and typically naked in their refusal to sentimentalize. But it is not until near the end of the book that she openly confesses her disbelief in Christian dogma, and specifically in life after death: “I realized that I had never believed in the words I had learned as a child in order to be confirmed. . . . I did not believe in the resurrection of the body.”
The lesson of the book seems to be that abandoning such childish hopes becomes the road to wellness.
The abject misery of having absolutely no hope in the face of the horror of loss is the most striking effect of this volume, and a very unsettling one at that.
The book ends with countless repetitions of phrases summarizing the book’s spiritual malady: “I look for resolution and find none”; “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” (invoking The Waste Land); “No eye is on the sparrow”; “Life changes in the instant, you sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” The Year of Magical Thinking ends with the utter rejection of “magic” itself: meaning, apparently, the rejection of transcendence as well.
Her book can usefully be compared with the one significant grief narrative she invokes: Lewis’s A Grief Observed. His story is filled with even more rage than hers. The famous champion of the faith dismisses Christian attempts to soothe him: “But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”
Nevertheless, Lewis says at the end, “How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back! She said not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me.” The book ends with these words, reasserting the possibility of maintaining a belief in cosmic hope, even through the horror of grief.
His recovery reminds us of the words of St. Paul: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
Conversely, and unhappily, Didion’s haunting work offers no consolation whatsoever. The many readers who have read through both volumes face a stark choice between the two. It may be suggestive of the forlornness of our times that Didion’s frightening vision of the abyss should reach the level of popularity and cultural authority that it has. And despite what our culture often tells us, the antidote for such pain may not be the rejection of magical thinking, but its steady embrace.
Harold K. Bush teaches English at Saint Louis University. His newest book, Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age, will appear in the fall of 2006.
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“Pain Without Gain” first appeared in the September 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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