By Yanshu Li

Death might be the same for the deceased ones, conceptually. But it might not be the same experience for the living. The survivors will have the hardest task after the permanent silence happened to their loved ones, to those who mattered, to the important other.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003, John Gregory Dunne died when he was in the middle of saying something at a dining table at home with his wife, the writer Joan Didion.

Published in 2005.
Published in 2005.

Nine months later, Joan Didion held her pen and wrote the book called “The Year of Magical Thinking.”

Joan Didion is an American journalist, writer, novelist, essayist, and a playwright. She began this narrative, very journalistically, with public events that involved many casualties, finding patterns in describing the events, similar to the opening lines of “Hiroshima” by John Hersey – the ordinary moments in an ordinary day. And what made the ordinary so worth mentioning was the thing happened next.

For a published book, which was aimed at readers of various kinds from various backgrounds, it could be obvious for the readers or the intellectuals in the fields of journalism or movie industry to know that who the writer is and to anticipate what she is trying to say. They might have read Dunne’s obituary in the New York Times. For those who are non-journalism-familiar readers, non-American-cultivated readers, it was still vague about what she is pointing at, when the last sentence of the first chapter ended on herself. The picture zoomed from a wide-open shot to a close-up on a person – the narrator.

Then the story opens with short sentences of details of that night. A small chronological quest that with a beginning of death at home, a middle of announcement the death in the hospital, and an ending of everything remained at home but completely not the same[1].

She, Joan Didion, the protagonist started the book because of the end of one’s life, the immediate beginning of the end, also her journey of coping, dealing and embracing the crucial event of her life – the death of her husband of 40 years, in a narrative she called magical thinking.

In an interview[2], she explained the magical thinking can be summarized as, what if I did or I didn’t, would things turn out to be different? – A certain level of remorse, regret and wishful thinking of controlling things. And also she didn’t think a lot about what the dead person had lost but what she had lost; then comes the self-pity.

From the Collection of Joan Didion Dunne. Photo Courtesy also to the New York Times.
From the Collection of Joan Didion Dunne. Photo Courtesy also to the New York Times.

[The Year of Magical Thinking] is not the typical book that lies on the bookshelves at a bookstore, which involves ostentatiously complimenting a loved one because they were famous and dead. It is not one of those books that intentionally teach people how to cope after the death of loved one. It is also not the analytical detachment from a scholar who studied psychology.

It is somehow a bit mixing of all, which depends on how readers digest the content. But those factors were not the narrator’s intention.

In one obvious respect, it is a biography – an autobiography. A memoir that focusing on a specific event, which is the death of her husband – John Dunne – as a plot, and the death of her adopted daughter – Quintana – as a subplot[3].

From another perspective, it is a verbal motion picture that was probably shot handheld, that is personal but not sappy. The narrative is not emotionally overwhelming in the lines. If it’s allowed to go further, it’s also a self-discovery, a mental travelogue under the extremes, the characteristics that the writer might have never know if it wasn’t for the situation.

The theme can be summarized with certain lines appeared repetitively from the beginning to the end,

“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”[4]

The quote here is in absolute clarity. She quoted it through out the book, making it the theme, to prove the experienced knowledge, a certainty of what could be learnt only by experiencing it oneself, rather than by precious study or other means. As she wrote, “grief turns out to be a place none of us knows until we reach it. ” [5]

With 227 pages of delving, Joan Didion took the readers on a bold and engaging journey; sometimes was on the brim of delirious, other times on the side of reason.


Sandra L. Patterson wrote a review saying, “the major shortcoming of the book is its length. I found much digression, reaching into the distant past for meaning, citing people, circumstances, and conversations far too peripheral to the poignant message Didion has to offer.” [6] The reviewer stated that a shorter narrative would have been more powerful.

Unlike the straightforward comment from Patterson, Sandra M. Gilbert confirmed that Didion learnt the bitter truth of “repetitiousness of grief, with its recycling of magical hopes and its reveal.” And throughout the book, the fact that the writer did not “explicitly make these points herself is neither here nor there.”[7]

Although there was detail, maybe too much, appearing through out the whole book, Gilbert nonetheless thought, as she agreed with David Herbert R. Lawrence, that for writers, “do not always know (or want to know) exactly what they are saying.”

Dr. Francine Cournos[8] reviewed Didion’s description as “the ordinary experience of grieving in an extraordinary way,” and “vividly captures every one of these facets of mourning in excruciating detail.” And she valued what Didion had experienced and respected her own trip of finding help from several sources, including the re-grief therapy of Vamik Volkan[9], which ended with Emily Post’s 1922 book of etiquette where she found the solace.

Scholars and readers from different background may somehow all found the same feature that is the repetitiveness of her denial, the grief and the cognition process of “life changes fast”, something she had knew before and just learnt by experiencing it herself.

The question is that, is it working, by recounting the unorganized scattered facts that picture the life as once was, by a digression of reaching far beyond as some critics said, and by narrating in a Virginia Woolf way of monologue about how the narrator wanted to have control?

Perhaps it is true in the field of Psychiatry, as Patterson said, that the statement of grief ought to be succinct and analysis to be right at the jugular. The details of life repeated between a wife and husband seemed less important than the narrator’s mentality itself.

But there is fragility here, being a protagonist, the role for Didion would not exist if it were not for the death of her husband. Some part in her – on the brim of delirious – believed he would come back, since she could not threw away his shoes[10]; she thought, “how could he come back if he had no shoes?” and “I needed to be alone so that he could come back.[11]” Some part in her – on the side of reason – was ready to let go, as she said, “I had to believe he was dead all along” when it is pronounced, and she had acknowledged his death.

The denial was obvious, just as how much she wanted clarity. For the narrator, it is her job to find every material that could support her on the quest, which was also the reason of writing the book The Year of Magical Thinking.

For any reader who was not familiar with her and her previous work, this book is an adequate choice of understanding an intelligent mind, a sensitive woman, and a loved wife, how she coped in her unique way. And this largely could be contributed to the pettiness, the habitual quotidian events and the monologue coming out from inside. These lines allowed the narrator to paint somehow a panoramic picture of what their life once was, their relationship and the density of dependency, factors that exist in the connection of a family. Those factors were also the reason the protagonist held the magical thinking, since they were once very real, and then “you sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

Those small things, just like bricks, paved a path both for the narrator and the readers to explore a place they were about to discover, with foundation.

From the Collection of Joan Didion Dunne. Photo Courtesy also to the New York Times.
From the Collection of Joan Didion Dunne. Photo Courtesy also to the New York Times.

She tried to give rational explanation of her own reactions and feelings over that period, by citing psychological analysis, like Freud, rather than describe her own pain in an abstract or overwhelming way.[12]

There are lots of citations, even the standard of a medical research paper[13], relevant or irrelevant to the death and loss of loved one itself, and they made the memoir more readable on an intellectual level.[14] At the same time, they made the memoir not so easy to read for general readers who only look for sentiment.

The protagonist is hiding behind those powerful quotes and citations, and waited for the right moment to introduce her own feelings, no sappiness, not like a hysterical woman, but an intelligent woman mourning in superficial sanity.

So the readers, who were not only her fellow writers or intellectuals but also the general public, they would follow the intellectual engagement, which contributed the narrative more “she,” as Roger Luckhurst put it, “this convergence of theory and memoir is perhaps so well-oiled because Didion obsessively reads the literature of mourning, unable to switch off her journalistic impulse to accrue information.[15]

It is working, to have various sources of different kinds of grief, like excerpts of different people handling the similar issue[16]. It is also sensible for her to find the resonance. The voice could sooth her and link her, drag her out of the isolation. It’s more traceable and easy to cope if the survivor finds other voices that could be a vicarious let-out. And it’s relevant for the writer to express.

“Happiness only real when shared.” Maybe grief is similar.

Although some paragraphs seemed more like a monologue of her own mentality, they were not necessarily designed to convey her message about the theme “magical thinking.” They could be interpreted as an outcome from a person who is in shock and not yet recovered.

Rather than simply narrating the fact, she was writing to confirm what had happened. The happened – did happen – now are ended, and will never happen.[17] Some tenses she used were not exactly like a typical narrative or description of what happened, more like something she was imaging and pondering, “what could have happened if I…” – the remorse, the wishful thinking.[18]

She was capable of detaching herself, at a certain level, from the involvement in the tragedy, despite all the potential hysteria, to observe herself in this extreme situation. As we read “people who have recently lost someone have a certain look…the look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. It is the look of someone who walks from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes, or of someone who wears glasses and is suddenly made to take them off,[19]” which made the narration truthful, and cruel – cruelty of the irrevocable past, and of the protagonist’s bravery of deep investigation – an invisible act of ripping off the Band-Aid.

To quote Roger Luckhurst in his review, “repetitive syntactical structures convey both a sense of magical incantation to keep him alive, but also a kind of post- traumatic automatism – and these repetitions are accumulated throughout the book to brilliant effect.”

Like the flashback technique in the movies, Didion came back to the scene, to where she was at school, where her family had life together, those places she called trigger after it happened. It broke the chronological order, as what Zoe Cohen called non-linear storytelling[20].

Therefore, the repetitiveness and the citations of others, they depicted her situation as a left one, the lonely one who was not losing her mind because she had other companies – her thoughts, the predecessor’s wisdom, and the human consonance.

This approach reinforced the narrative during that one year, about what happened to the protagonist and the journey through, when she was aware of that life needed to move on. The narrative arc is straightforward. The whole narration started with tension of the death of her husband, and then her “cliffs of fall,” till she finally forced herself to let things go.

It is also more interesting and convincing than simply stating the feelings with fabulous adjectives. It’s an illustration that she adapted the format of jumping back and forth to imitate her mental condition accordingly, whether she was fully aware of that or not.

A Chinese novelist, critic and essayist Lu Xun once depicted a woman who referred as Xiang Lin’s wife in the story named New Year’s Sacrifice. The writer’s approach to narrative the change of her after several tragic events happened, was she talking about one thing repetitively to strangers. It’s similar to the post-traumatic reaction of people. They need the repetition to confirm, to process the cognition of the changed.

After almost a year, Didion mentioned her attitude toward the marital status, the ring, and evidently exactly one year after the day. A cool narrating tone, the protagonist realized no matter what, “January becomes February and February becomes summer, certain things will happen.” Although she did not “want to finish the year.”

Till now, the protagonist tells the end of the narration by invisible lines, which were in between her awareness of what took her to move on.

This is a narration that recounting the extraordinary experience of a writer who was viscerally looking for expression, on something she was not certain before. Although there are parts that seem repetitive, being a storytelling approach, concise doesn’t necessarily relate to powerful. The narrative of a bereaved here is not the fragrance essence – it’s not better when it’s condensed.

We can say that Joan Didion used fierce anatomy on her one-year mentality telling a story that across borders and cultures, and no approach she took has set limitation on the narrative, just as what she comprehended during, as following,

“These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal. I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved. I understood for the first time the power in the image of the rivers, the Styx, the Lethe, the cloaked ferryman with his pole. I understood for the first time the meaning in the practice of suttee. Widows did not throw themselves on the burning raft out of grief. The burning raft was instead an accurate representation of the place to which their grief (not their families, not the community, not custom, their grief) had taken them.[21]

————————————–   End Notes  —————————————–

[1] [The Year of Magical Thinking] book, page 9 – 16.

[2] The interview YouTube link:

[3] From Sandra M. Gilbert – The Year of Magical Thinking – Literature and Medicine, Volume 25, Number 2, Fall 2006, pp. 553-557 Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/lm.2007.0004

[4] [The Year of Magical Thinking] book, page 3, 63,77, 98, 151, 171, 192.

[5] [The Year of Magical Thinking] book, page 188.

[6] Sandra L. Patterson – review of the Year of Magical Thinking, THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHIATRY December 2006 Volume 163 Number 12.

[7] From Sandra M. Gilbert – The Year of Magical Thinking – Literature and Medicine, Volume 25, Number 2, Fall 2006, pp. 553-557 Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/lm.2007.0004

[8] Dr. Francine Cournos is chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s committee on AIDS and professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, New York City.

[9] [The Year of Magical Thinking] book, page 55 – 57.

[10] [The Year of Magical Thinking] book, page 37, 41.

[11] [The Year of Magical Thinking] book, page 33.

[12] [The Year of Magical Thinking] book, page 36.

[13] [The Year of Magical Thinking] book, page 49.

[14] [The Year of Magical Thinking] book, page 47.

[15] Roger Luckhurst – Reflections on Joan Didion’s the year of Magical Thinking, New Formations, No. 67, Summer 2009.

[16] [The Year of Magical Thinking] book, page 54.

[17] [The Year of Magical Thinking] book, page 43.

[18] [The Year of Magical Thinking] book, page 187.

[19] [The Year of Magical Thinking] book, page 74.

[20] Zoe Cohen, a literary assistant, wrote book review and published on Milwaukee Repertory Theater – The Rep Milwaukee, October 14 – November 8, 2009

[21] [The Year of Magical Thinking] book, page 75.


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