“Fuck!” you mouth, after reading a peaking Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. You stare into space and feel something shivering around your ribs. But once that telltale awe-fog ends, you begin to wonder: how the fuck did she do that?
On December 30, 2004, John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion’s husband of 40 years, suffered a heart attack and died. Didion’s life changed “in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” Five days earlier, their daughter Quintana had been admitted to intensive care. This book is a journal of her grief and her pain, and it’s wonderful.
But, again, how does she do it? The Year of Magical Thinking isn’t that profound. It’s honest (we generous readers assume), but people have been writing about death for as long as people have been writing. It’s pretty hard to say anything new.
But we don’t read Didion for obvious profoundity. Let me say this: clichés are like cow-pats along the narrative-track. Some writers are city-kids in heels, carefully tip-toeing to avoid the stale phrases.
Others, like Didion, run on barefoot. And yep, she treads in a few stinky pats of cliché. But the payoff is the accessibility of her writing, which would merely be admirably clear, if it were not that at the end of certain passages, in which certain unremarkable events are related in unremarkable language, certain sentences read like punches to the gut.
Which is why we read Didion: to witness the masterful architecture of rhythm. She would never attempt the stylistic miracles of Thomas Pynchon, and she doesn’t quite possess the freakish lyrical ear of Michael Ondaatje. And yet, we feel her incredible sentences. We even feel that dreadful blank space she leaves on the page. A place for our nightmares, she once said. This is what made her the exemplar of literary minimalism, approaching Hemmingway at her fictional height in the astounding Play It as It Lays, which is still better than any of the output of her more consistent protégé Bret Easton Ellis. The Year of Magical Thinking is beautifully orchestrated writing. Go on, Nancy: read it and weep.