Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity.
These are the first four sentences of the novel and the first words that Didion says she wrote after John’s death, just a few days after December 30. Their understated clarity and clipped sound set the tone for much of the rest of the book, which tends to look at tragedy and extreme emotion as though from an outside perspective and with a certain calmness that tries to come to an understanding of the situation.
When I read this at breakfast almost eleven months after the night with the ambulance and the social worker, I recognized the thinking as my own.
After John’s death, Didion comes across many texts, whether by deliberately searching them out or, in this case, by accident, which speak to her present condition of grief. In this case, she reads a New York Times article about a documentary, in which the mother of a solider does not want to let an army official into her house because she knows that he will tell her that her son has been killed. Here we see Didion’s everyday engagements with the stories of others informing her way of coming to grips with her own stories. This example stands in contrast to the highly rational medical articles she reads as a case in which one can perhaps learn more by seeing how other people – and oneself – act irrationally in situations of extreme pain.
I could not give away the rest of his shoes. I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need shoes if he was to return. The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought.
Along with organ donation, the donation of John’s clothes after his death presents Didion with a particular challenge. She realizes that behind her strong resistance to the idea, seemingly without reason, is the belief, or “magical thinking,” that John would need his shoes if he were to come back to life. Giving the shoes away would be making him definitely dead without the possibility of return. However, she realizes at the same time that thinking and recognition can only take her so far; even noting the irrationality of a thought does not drain it of its power.
In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control.
In a way both autobiographical and metaliterary, Didion often writes about herself as a writer. In fact, we cannot imagine the book only as a reflection on grief after a husband’s death – it is remarkable as the reflection of a writer on grief, a representation of how a writer deals with grief. For Didion, literature is not only a profession, interest, or habit, but something that constitutes who she is and how she deals with challenging situations. She does not exert control over situations with power but with knowledge.
No. The way you got sideswiped was by going back. The blossoms showing in the orchards off 101 was the incorrect track.
Since her grief seems to so often lead her to painful memories, Didion decides that she should try to stick to the “correct track,” of thinking about things that keep her in the present moment and allow her to act normal. However, from time to time she finds that the most seemingly innocuous memories cascade into others that hit her as though she were “sideswiped,” say by a car. In this particular quote, she ends the previous paragraph and then begins this one with a blunt “No” and then address to herself as “you,” one of the few times that she does so in the book. This indicates the intensity with which she is trying to face the draw of memories.
Why did I keep stressing what was and was not normal, when nothing about it was?
Although Didion has been talking about the normal and the abnormal since the very beginning of the book, it is not until this point that she explicitly undermines the whole assumption behind this opposition: that the normal was something she still had, or ever had, and could try to maintain. What she realizes is that even her attempts to think things through and to return to a normal life end up themselves being highly abnormal. She is in a situation in which she does not really have control over herself. Coming to accept this fact is an important step for her, paradoxically, to returning to a certain stability and grounding in life that she considered normality.
This seemed to be working. I had avoided thinking for at least two minutes about why I was at Beth Israel.
In this passage, Didion describes the first time she experiences the “vortex effect” while watching ice floes from Quintana’s room in Beth Israel. She begins to let herself go into memories at first so that she does not have to think about the painful present situation of Quintana’s illness. However, she finds that not only do these memories inflict a different kind of pain on her, but they also are not so effective in passing the time.
For once in your life just let it go.
Didion exhorts herself to not hold onto things so much and to hope for a total understanding. Throughout much of the book she wants to preserve the possibility that she could bring John back, or at least the counterfactual that had she done something at one point, she could have prevented his death. In the end, she acquiesces to the fate of what has already happened and decides to let John go.
I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response.
Since Joan and John were both writers, they would often share their work with each other and discuss all sorts of concerns. Joan only realizes after John’s death how much this conversation with John came to ground her entire life and sense of self. Even though his absence makes it clearly impossible to speak with him, speaking with him has since become a way that she understands herself and processes her feelings, so that it is almost quite literally part of herself. Losing this makes her realize how much of herself is actually outside of herself, and the reason for why she seems so painfully thrown back into herself in self-pity.
I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.
Joan’s realization at the end of the book answers her implicit question at its beginning as to the meaning of her “magical thinking,” her impossible and irrational hope that John could come back to life. She wanted to avoid the full affirmation of John’s death so that a part of him would always be with her, but this in turn only made his total absence more painfully apparent. It is only by letting go of him that she is able to begin to find herself again – without him.
The Year of Magical Thinking Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Year of Magical Thinking is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.