‘Give grief a chance’, the text seems to say. Five chapters in, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking presents a generative exploration of mourning whose writing combines an impersonal detachment with an underlying layer of devastation. It investigates how one comes to terms with grief, its memoir form offering Didion the chance to engage in both her journalistic style and a personal reflection. Its inward journey begs the question: who is the memoir for?
In her own memoir, The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson courts the concept of writing to no one. In this case, the memoir form denotes a dispersal, an expression of self which retains an intensity of relations. These intensities do not fade (or else a reader would be left with nothing) but remains in a kind of reverberation, undirected, taken up by the reader. Nelson’s ‘auto-theory’ approach mirrors this concept well, but Didion’s approach is directed, its agenda set out from the beginning. This memoir is for her; the writing is for the writer. She relays the events of her husband’s death like a report, a camera unfolding on a scene. The text retells the extraordinary through the lens of the ordinary. Didion muses on these eruptions of catastrophe, noting, ‘confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred’. The distancing of reflection posits Didion at a double removal; that of the grieving individual looking back, and that of the writer whose memoir reports the effects of the disaster.
The Didion we receive is thus a shadowy figure, conveying a frame by frame retelling of events. The journalistic style creates a veil of detachment, a common feature of her other works:
As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.
As the first few chapters progress, the polish intermittently loses its impenetrable sheen. The veil is there to be punched through, injecting the text with pulses of emotional strain or outbursts of grief. The detached report struggles against its self-censorship; reading through literature on mourning she laments the distancing from death brought on by modernity; the hiddenness of grief as something no longer seen openly. The text presents this hiding of grief as a fabric, the ripples of grief combing across it, disturbing its flatness. Didion writes, ‘[g]rief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life’. As a text of grief, The Year of Magical Thinking structures itself around these waves, moving back and forwards around John’s death, between factual accounts and moments of realisation which interrupt the factual narrative. Grief invades the text rather than pervades it, its fluctuations often brief but impactful. Its irruptions are deftly handled and relatable, as seen in Didion’s approach to John’s autopsy:
In fact I wanted to be in the room when they did it (I had watched those other autopsies with John, I owed him his own, it was fixed in my mind at that moment that he would be in the room if I were on the table) but I did not trust myself to rationally present the point so I did not ask.
The clinical process, the opening up of a person, is relayed as a possibility which cannot be fulfilled; Didion separates her explanation with parentheses, shutting it off from the rest of the text as though fearful that its limitation will be judged harshly. The literal dismantling of one’s body accompanies the dismantling of rational speech as Didion relates her own relational inability. Awareness of the grief process intervenes, as though it dictates what must be seen and not seen. Level-headed journalistic style and fluctuations of grief butt heads as Didion’s desire to learn more appears to contradict her knowledge of mourning tradition.
The text itself is suspicious of these waves of grief, of anything fluid, anything that is not solid or static. The normal, the rational, manifests as concrete things. Retaining John’s shoes, carrying ID with her in order to ease her identification in the event of her own untimely death, Didion overtly attempts to not only put the blue back into the sky behind the falling plane, but ensure that the sky will remain blue at all times. Her awareness of the pointlessness of normality at such a time of grief foregrounds the prevalence of detachment, a façade which only further betrays the waves of grief bubbling underneath. As Emmet Rensin says, ‘[t]his, at bottom, is what terrifies. The mourner who asks, Why am I so preoccupied with the normal? is asking, really, Is this normal now?’. The waves of grief move this platform of normalcy along the text, bursting through at intervals. Images of water recur throughout, returning at the end of Chapter Five as Didion evokes the River Styx, drawing on its function as both an avenue of transportation and as a barrier, separating us from our loved ones. Grief moves, and the text, even in its first five chapters alone, is moving too.