I recently read Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. As you probably know, it is her chronicle of the ways that grief disorders a person’s thinking, which she began writing after about a year had elapsed since her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died. The book is also a memorial to her marriage to Dunne and a celebration of their life together with their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, who was in and out of hospitals for the year after Dunne’s death and who would die shortly before the book itself was published.
The Year of Magical Thinking has been incredibly influential as a model for memoirs in the twenty-first century, especially for women writers. It won the National Book Award and Didion later adapted it into an acclaimed one-woman play. So it is with some diffidence that I buck both the critical consensus and the etiquette of mourning and state that I found the book wretched with oblivious privilege.
Didion has always liked lists and specialized argots and place names that capture a certain ambience to the cognoscenti, but If you took out the medical terms on the one hand, and the names of (mostly defunct) fashionable restaurants on the other, there would be very little of the book left. If you further removed the names of Didion’s famous friends, you’d probably have less than a Talk of the Town New Yorker piece.
I certainly recognize that Didion uses both sets of words–the medical and the renowned–as therapeutic tethers to both memory and normalcy, but there is also a performative feature to these vocabularies. On one level, this is a book written for her friends and for her husband’s friends, and thus feels something like an exceptionally detailed Acknowledgments section or an overly confessional thank you note. On another level, however, it is a book for people who will catch maybe one out of every eight of the references she makes to the worlds of the slick magazine and of Hollywood, to writers and editors, lunch spots and upscale restaurants. This group of readers is, I think, supposed to be dazzled by the glamor of the life Didion describes, much as we are–I can only conclude–supposed to be stunned by the torrent of medical jargon in which Didion dunks the reader every twenty pages or so. She never explains any of these terms any more than she describes the restaurants’ interiors or bills of fare; her references to them are not meant to represent actual body parts or conditions or actual buildings and kitchens. They are words, words which Didion controls–which is, ultimately, the point. The book is a reminder of the immense amount of power Didion–and the people she knows well–actually does have.
There are two places this becomes obvious. Here’s the first:
One thing I noticed during the course of those weeks at UCLA was that many people I knew, whether in New York or in California or in other places, shared a habit of mind usually credited to the very successful. They believed absolutely in their own management skills. They believed absolutely in the power of the telephone numbers they had at their fingertips, the right doctor, the major donor, the person who could facilitate a favor at State or Justice. The management skills of these people were in fact prodigious. The power of their telephone numbers was in fact unmatched. I had myself for most of my life shared the same core belief in my ability to control events. If my mother was suddenly hospitalized in Tunis I could arrange for the American consul to bring her English-language newspapers and get her onto an Air France flight to meet my brother in Paris. If Quintana was suddenly stranded in the Nice airport I could arrange with someone at British Airways to get her onto a BA flight to meet her cousin in London. Yet I had always at some level apprehended, because I was born fearful, that some events in life would remain beyond my ability to control or manage them. Some events would just happen. This was one of those events.
One might read this as Didion acknowledging her lack of power, her inability to control events. But that’s not really the overall meaning here. Instead, she is telling us that her control and the control possessed by these “people I knew” is not complete, but it is formidable. It is capable of surmounting many extremities. It is capable of bending airlines and the health care system to its will. “The power of their telephone numbers was in fact unmatched.”
The other moment that stands out to me is when Didion receives “a thick volume called Lives of ’54, prepared for what was then the imminent fiftieth reunion of John’s class at Princeton.” It contains biographies of all the alumni from this class, which included–Didion singles him out–Donald Rumsfeld. The book was published in 2005. Here is the passage in full:
I closed Lives of ’54. A few weeks later I opened it again, and leafed through the other entries. One was from Donald H. (“Rummy”) Rumsfeld, who noted: “After Princeton, the years seem like a blur, but the days seem more like rapid fire.” I thought about this.
“I thought about this” is not a coy nod to the Iraq War, but rather a pause to assimilate this observation about the experience of time passing. She identifies with it, she identifies her husband with it, she identifies the other men of Princeton Class of ’54 with it. In 2005, she references Rumsfeld not for political reasons but to articulate a banal truism about memory and perception.
“I thought about this.” Hmm.
Didion may not be entirely self-aware in these moments about how rare her kind of power is, but she certainly acknowledges its existence. At other times, she seems even more complacent, completely uninterested in the way that lives are being shaped and destroyed by history happening just under her nose. For instance, while she is recovering from the shock of her husband’s death, she is given an assignment to cover the 2004 Democratic and Republican conventions, where John Kerry was nominated and George W. Bush renominated for President. It is difficult to argue that Kerry would have–had he won–committed to an aggressive timetable for the removal of soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. And he certainly did not run as an economic populist, so it is perhaps a stretch to believe that he would have directed a clampdown on the Wall Street behavior that was so much to blame for the global financial crisis of 2007-2008.
It is nevertheless disconcerting to read how cavalierly Didion takes her assignment. Didion is still sick with grief as she travels to Boston, and for that she certainly deserves her reader’s sympathy, but when she bails on the convention even before it had begun–she ends up watching it on tv from her hotel room–she doesn’t acknowledge that perhaps such an important event should be covered by someone else. Near the end of the book, she mentions how difficult it was for her to turn her observations on the conventions and the campaigns into the essay that she was supposed to produce (I believe it became this piece). Here is the passage:
In August and September, after the Democratic and Republican conventions but before the election, I wrote, for the first time since John died, a piece. It was about the campaign. It was the first piece I had written since 1963 that he did not read in draft form and tell me what was wrong, what was needed, how to bring it up here, take it down there. I have never written pieces fluently but this one seemed to be taking even longer than usual: I realized at some point that I was unwilling to finish it, because there was no one to read it. I kept telling myself that I had a deadline, that John and I never missed deadlines. Whatever I finally did to finish this piece was as close as I have ever come to imagining a message from him. The message was simple: You’re a professional. Finish the piece.
“I was unwilling to finish it, because there was no one to read it.” Most directly, this is a lamentation for the dead, but it is also an illumination of the very personal world of writers like Didion, writers whose success over such a long period of time has turned public writing into a kind of sustained private conversation with their equally well-connected friends. Those friends have become Didion’s only real audience, and her responsibilities as a writer really end with them, not with the anonymous readers like you and I who may read Didion’s work. Didion was commissioned to write a piece about the conventions, so she’ll do it for the editor. “You’re a professional. Finish the piece.”
In 2019, it is hard not to be angry at any journalist, even a woman grieving for her husband, who looks at journalism the way that Didion does here–not really as a public service, a means of informing the public and presenting it with well-grounded opinions about important issues, but instead as a kind of continuation into one’s working life of socializing with a network of friends and contacts. Yes, keeping personal and professional lives separate is never easy, but this is a kind of deliberate merging of the two which seriously undermines one of them–the one that the public depends on.