A reflection on Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, by Anna Sublet

There are rust-coloured stains on page six of my library copy of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. It is here that Didion is describing cleaning up the blood, the spilt blood from her husband’s moments of death. It is unnerving, the mark of ink and blood on the soiled page. I can see the carpet, the discarded syringes, and I can already feel the force of Didion’s eye on this page, this moment, this ordinary instant, this instant.

Didion’s book is an attempt to navigate grief and life itself, through the analysis of text and images, of words and markings on a page. She writes ‘even as a child…I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs…’ We traverse a year which transports her from her literal, fixed, understood world, across the shifting plates of a new landscape. ‘Was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought?’ she asks. She takes us from the domestic scenes, detailed with chairs, books and dinner plates, to hospital rooms, clinical procedures, and through her memories.

Didion is a rigorous tour guide on these zones of roaming, where words can both anchor and unhinge. And it is the voice of a writer which transports us: forensic, yet questioning; exact, yet shifting; exposed yet assured. We trust her because of her skill: we are seeing through the detailed eyes of a professional observer. In the enormity of the universe, Didion asserts that ‘no eye was on the sparrow,’ yet her memoir turns the eye to the detail of the bird, and takes the reader, swooping, with her.

‘Why…did I remain so unable to accept the fact that he had died?’ Didion asks. She looks for meaning in prescriptions, annotations, maps, statistics, medical research, experts, editors, manuscripts and music. The last book read, the last search in the dictionary: can she find meaning here, right here, on this page, in this instant? She uses extensive references to medical studies, once again scaffolding the void with research and the voice of authority.

Didion allows the reader to witness her lack of willingness to surrender control, and in this way, she invites our trust. As John had said to her: ‘Why do you always have to be right?…just let it go.’ Her need for ‘constructive cognitive engagement’ takes her to crosswords, and she draws the reader into such machinations of managing, her attempt to use words as a way of navigating.

In the juxtaposition of shopping lists with medical texts, she shows the reader the impenetrable medical world smack up against the menial. What makes more sense? Undoubtedly, it’s the need for flaxseed meal, scrawled on her shopping list. Her husband’s medical records and her daughter’s statistical chances of survival, these are the realms in which she has come unstuck. She compares the book of Clinical Neuroanatomy to a foreign language, where the verbs are the same as the nouns. Here, she is seeking sense through literal navigation: the body, the physiology, the architecture of words and organs. The reader trusts the navigator. In the sitting room, books stay open on a page: anchor points.

Throughout the text Didion uses repeated family sayings, their talismans. They draw us forward and backwards through life, death, near-death, a wedding and a funeral. Didion plays with chronology to try to make sense of things, utilising flashbacks to access memories, then layering the mess of meanings, conveying her shifting world, the topography rent asunder.

(…)

‘I love you more than one more day.’

These words unhinge me. In navigating the grief of my father’s death, I clung to date stamps, timepieces, fragments of words and text. ‘If and when it’s necessary, Annie,’ my father said to me as he lay dying, and in denial. No wonder Didion can break me open, yet also give me something to hold onto: words.

As Didion writes, we cannot know ‘…the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is, the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning…’ Geographical shifts, erosion, bucking structures, vortex and void.

There was, for me, a sense of being spat out at the end of a process. Her stylistic device is to take the reader less by the hand, and more by the throat and into the messy matter of the brain. ‘You had to feel the swell change’ John would say to her. The sub-sea shifts, the waterfalls flow, the wave lifts, and at just the right moment of momentum and suck and release and lift off, we humans go forward, into life, beyond the grave and above the depths and the pull of the vortex.

‘You’re safe. I’m here.’

And in the hands of the writer, we the readers are delivered to shore.

Didion, J. (2005) The Year of Magical Thinking, London: Fourth Estate

My piece on some words of my father’s, ‘If and When it’s Necessary’, published in The Guardian in March 2019.

© Anna Sublet, 2019

Curious reader and undercover scribbler. Published in The Guardian, The Age, Australian Traveller, Footy Almanac, The New York Times.