In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion's eighth book to make it to The New York Times best-seller list, an author known for her intellectual analysis of personal and global events reveals the limited power of intelligence to defend her against a breakdown as she struggles to cope with the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and the simultaneous grave illness of their daughter.
Didion's reportage of her reactions during her annus horribilus - disbelief, denial, attempts to go back in time and re-play events so that they turn out differently - are so ruthless in their candor that any reader familiar with her consummately logical mind will be moved by her desperate attempt to fend off uncontrollable vortices of emotional pain by resorting to primitive superstition, incantation and belief in magic.
Because Joan Didion's claim to fame is her power to penetrate to reality when most of us are indulging in self-gratifying fictions, she is the American writer we depend on to disabuse us of our cultural myths and our complacencies. In book after book, she turned the cool laser beam of her mind on subjects as divergent as Hollywood, America at the end of the sixties, El Salvador, the soullessness of Southern California, and her own psychotherapy, always warning about the abyss lying in wait beneath ordinary events -- the snakes in the jacarandas, the coyotes peering from the shoulders of the highway, the CIA agent turning up dead in a hotel pool -- so to watch her fall into a chaos she has not expected is shocking indeed. As John Leonard writes, "If Joan Didion went crazy, what are the chances for the rest of us? Not good."
"To the average observer I would have appeared to fully understand that death was irreversible, she writes, but this is how far she travels from sanity: she catches herself keeping John's shoes in the closet because he will need them when he comes back; she orders an autopsy based on the irrational belief that if the cause of death were known, the death could be prevented; when his obituaries appear, she holds on to her private unreality: "I had allowed other people to think he was dead. I had allowed him to be buried alive."
John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion were a Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn couple who offset each other in the best possible ways; they took turns deflating each other's grandiosities and argued Socratically as they worked out their thoughts. In the moments before he collapsed in their New York apartment, they had been discussing "why the first world war was the critical event from which the entire rest of the 20th century flowed." Neither could imagine living without the other. Whether collaborating on screenplays, or simply writing side by side day after day for forty years, they were rarely out of range of the sound of the other's voice.
They were well-known and well-connected: "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." All their lives, they believed that having the facts provided a means towards controlling chaos. Even after her husband's death, as her daughter lies in a coma in a New York hospital, she learns all she can about her illness and its treatment, as if that could restore her daughter to health. She wears medical scrubs on her visits and learns hospital jargon, as if she were part of the medical team. "Information was control."
When forced by events to admit that having all the facts about her husband's heart disease and her daughter's septic shock have no effect at all on their conditions, admissions that come gradually and only as a result of her facing her own illusions, her intellectual defenses crumble. She is at a loss except for her mad superstitions and the comfort of remembering lines from great writers - sprinkled throughout her narrative are tiny tributes to Thomas Mann, C.S. Lewis, Matthew Arnold and others, offered in gratitude for their articulation of her grief and slow recovery.