Magic that makes you lose your illusions

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking

I have a tendency to expect the worst. I’m screwed up enough to believe that if I can prepare myself to face the absolute worst, then I should be alright, I should be able to survive whatever life decides to throw my way. Expecting the worst has worked for me, because, usually, things don’t get as bad as I fear they will.

Of course, I’ve had my share of times when expectations are met, even mine. And when something goes wrong, it takes me a while to get used to the idea of being miserable, as opposed to merely fearing that I’ll be miserable. The last am an expert at – the first feels new, every time. All that preparation is apparently worthless. So, why I do persist? Do I actively enjoy gloom?

I’ve have the last question asked of me by friends who believe I also have a tendency to read or watch what they label as “depressing stuff”. I faced the latest round of questions after foolishly announcing that I’d read Joan Didion’s amazing ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’. [1] To review Didion’s book does not feel right – it would amount to commenting on someone’s life, worse, on someone’s grief. It feels too presumptuous. Instead, am going to take a shot at answering the question my friends ask of me – why I read books like Didion’s and what, if anything, do I get from them.

It’s a tricky thing to read memoirs. When they’re filled with lists of accomplishments, I feel that I’m condoning self-indulgence. When they are about challenges overcome, I start to wonder if I haven’t been tricked into a self-help book sugar-coated as an auto-biography. When they’re about pain or grief, I feel like a voyeur.

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking falls into the last category. In case you haven’t already heard about this book, it is an account of Didion’s life in the one year after her husband of thirty-nine years dies of a sudden heart attack. That their daughter is battling for her life at the time of her father’s death and for much of the time afterwards does not help matters. At some point, Didion hears herself being referred to as a “cool customer”. As you keep reading, you realize she is one. She counters the haze of grief with clarity: she reads up psychological studies on bereavement, reads what medical textbooks say about her daughter’s condition, jumps through bureaucratic hoops to get her daughter transferred to different hospitals. If you can define something, you can master it. The principle does not seem to apply to grief. For all her attempts, Didion doesn’t always manage to get her arms around this shape-shifting monster. The least expected things trigger memories and she goes right back to square one.

So much for what that one year did for Didion. What this book does to you is to make you question your opinions about a number of things (after it makes you admit that what you hold are only opinions, in the first place).

First, there’s the debunking of a number of theories I’ve come to believe simply from repetition.

1. “It’s ok to die after you’ve lead a full life”. Here is a couple who led a life that can easily be described as full. I’ve been told that that should be enough. You find out that it’s not. You think you have a ton of happy memories? Wait and watch, for they are likely to come back to haunt you.
2. “To die in a moment, without going through a prolonged period of illness is a good thing.” I hear this all the time, especially from my grandparents. You encounter both types of death in this book. Neither is one easy for the ones who’re left behind.
3. “With age comes wisdom”. Perhaps it does, but at 70+, there’s still one heck of a lot you don’t understand.

Then there’s the issue of judgment. To benefit from loss does not feel right. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that turning your grief into a successful book isn’t something that my mother would approve of. [2] Silent martyrdom feels like the only right response to the death of a close friend or family member. Of course, I immediately felt guilty about feeling that way. Who am I to impose rules on the ways people can deal with their loss? What has conditioned me to think of silence and martyrdom as being the best, or worse, the “right” reaction?

Along with this vague mixture of disapproval and guilt comes a bit of wishful thinking. Didion and Dunne appear to have had a wonderful marriage. Despite all the grief that the end of such a wonderful relationship entails, I realize that I should be lucky to have one in the first place. There’s also wishing that if I live to be Didion’s age, I hope I’d have even half the tenacity, half the clarity of this woman. And who am I kidding – I also wish for at least half her success.

At some point, I realized that this book was becoming a part of my internal calibration mechanism. [Bear with me while I take a detour to explain what I mean by this.]

If reading in general is a great escape hatch, reading about misery is the zenith of escapism. It not only helps you escape life at the moment you’re reading, but also long afterwards. I’ve been reading for about a couple of decades now (which sounds great, doesn’t it? This is the only instance where I’m proud of my age), and I’ve started to notice that “original” moments are becoming rarer and rarer. Everything I do or feel, I’ve probably read about already (and therefore experienced, even if only vicariously). Perhaps the accumulation of experience is merely an artifact of age, but reading certainly quickens the process like nothing else does [3].

For the most part, I compare and contrast my real experiences with ones I’ve already had. I read more than I do anything else, and so even when I come across something completely new, my immediate reaction is to think of an appropriate author and how he or she might describe what I’m going through. As a result of all this measuring and analyzing, lots of times, I escape from actually feeling (unless I remind myself to – which immediately makes the experience artificial, don’t you think?). At the bare minimum, I get to defer impact of feeling. The act of calibration always comes first because it feels so much more important than what I’m feeling, which can always be done later. While the worth of this “suspension” is debatable in happy times, it has become invaluable in bad ones. And the more I read, the richer my portfolio of experiences. End digression.

Didion’s book is now part of this mixture. The good thing about reading Didion’s experience is that it forces you to acknowledge that it is Didion’s experience – if something like that were to happen to me, I would have to find my own ways of dealing with it. There is no guarantee that just because Didion seems to have survived, I will. She makes it abundantly clear that deep loss is always personal, and that there is no escaping it.

When I read what I’ve written, I see that I haven’t given a straight answer to the question I set out to answer. Why do I read books like this one? I did not enjoy it, at least not in the way my friends imply. If this were fiction, I might have considered agreeing with them. [4] On the contrary, this is real, and all the more terrifying for that reason. It is brutal, like Alice Sebold’s Lucky, if less violent.

One reason I started to read this particular book was simply because I’d read uniformly positive reviews about it. [5]. Also, I’ve been moping around a bit lately, and felt the need to see the world as seen by someone older, and therefore hopefully wiser. To get some perspective, so to speak. It was an unsettling experience to read Didion, because what I finally got from her was that there is no way to escape bad things. And whatever my personal misery, it is different from Didion’s and there were no “lessons” I could learn.

But for all that, learn I did. Thanks to Didion, I think I understand the mechanics of my own approach to disappointment better. Will I deal with it any better the next time I face it? I don’t know. But understanding helps me fine tune my internal calibrator. More importantly, understanding helps me recognize my fancy calibrator for the illusion that it is. And both have value.

[1] To my credit, I did not ask them to read this book, despite the fact I was dying to *order* them to read this book. I merely told them what the book was about.
[2] Warning: I have a nasty habit of assigning responses to “moral” questions to my mother, especially to those answers I feel I “ought” to give. I have no idea if my mother approves or disapproves of this particular book. She hasn’t read it.
[3] The alternative is that I actually go out and live life. Are you kidding me? Why would I ever choose that option, when I can experience all there is to right from the comfort of my bed, and get to read awesome writing at the same time? Life’s totally overrated!
[4] Note, the term used is “consider” – stories about unhappy people unfortunately happen to be some of the best written – and that’s my reason for reading those books, so there!
[5] How many books get positive reviews from Michiko Kakutani and Falstaff? Go here and here to read them.

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3 comments so far

  1. Matto on

    Your own schizoid reaction to the ‘whys’ of your reading are quite interesting…this hyper self-awareness that I often see in myself is quite disturbing don’t you think?…but not to digress too much, really well written post. And I’m curious to read Didion now.

  2. Falstaff on

    Ahem! I can’t speak for Ms. Kakutani, but dammit, I give plenty of books positive reviews. In fact, I tend to only review books that I like (it’s my not so subtle way of getting people to read them).

    Lovely post, though. Totally identify with the whole calibration thing – actually I suspect Didion does too – one of the chief joys of reading her book (which I think I mention in my post about it) was to learn that I’m not the only nutcase who deals with depression by turning to poetry.

    Also, yes, her tenacity and clarity is truly enviable, though it says a lot for how screwed up I am that what I envy her the most is still her ability to write. If losing a spouse could make me write like that, I’d get married tomorrow.

    Oh, and for point 2 – about how it’s best to die quickly and without pain, there’s always the counterview – remember “Do not go gentle into that good night”

  3. DoZ on

    Matto: Thank you! As for the over-analysis being disturbing – the reason I indulge in it is to convince myself and my friends that am not so weird. Looks like this attempted justification is only making me weirder (my friends didn’t buy the reasons I listed in this post)… And I just realized that I have taken to the couch again …Sheesh, I really do need to get a life! Oh well, as long as I convinced someone to try Didion, being labeled mad is a small price to pay 😉

    Falstaff: Thank you!

    And about Kakutani and you – I meant to say that a formal critic, as well as an informal (and therefore more trusted) one both agreed that this book was worth a read.

    Agree with everything you say about Didion, and about marriage. It is sad when the only thing you look forward to in a relationship is it’s demise so you can go write better…


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