On The Year of Magical Thinking

Literary magazines frustrate me. I’ve complained before that their focus seems to be on memoir but that’s not quite right. The focus is on stories. I have to tell my story. Do I have a story to tell? No one can tell my story better than me. I have to tell my truth. At first glance, that seems normal; the proper order. At second, it’s not. Correction: it might be normal (I can’t vouch for that, though my impression is that it is), but it isn’t the proper order by any stretch.

None of that is to say that a story isn’t important; a story is very important. The discomfort surfaces when the focus is on the story itself – the thing that happened, the trauma, the exceptional event, the action that stands out – rather than on what it all means and what goes on underneath. I had trouble articulating what separates one from the other until Joan Didion threw fresh light on the proper order.

In The Year of Magical Thinking Didion describes an extraordinary series of events. Her daughter fell ill and was comatose on Christmas Day and she watched her husband die of a massive coronary five days later, before her daughter woke up. When her daughter woke up, Didion had to tell her three times – her memory failed the first two times – that her father had died. Her daughter fell into a coma again shortly after the funeral and, though she was alive when Didion completed The Year of Magical Thinking, she died of complications from those earlier illnesses some months later.

Didion’s experience was extraordinary: watching as her spouse of forty years died suddenly at the kitchen table and dealing with the fallout as her daughter deteriorated and eventually died as well. But rather than dwelling on the ways in which her experience was exceptional, she probes it deeply and unearths the ways that her experience was both intensely personal and, consequently, heart-breakingly normal. She tells her story but the focus isn’t the story or narrative.

The narrative – the chronology – is splintered according to her recollections, casting about through years, jerked from one decade to another by “the vortex” of her memory. Wide breaks in the page separate disparate thoughts, related tangentially and by implication. Mantras keep returning to her and casting the story off into wild directions: Information is power. Life changes in the instant. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Do you always have to be right? I tell you that I shall not live two days. We call it the widowmaker, pal.

The focus is her perception; all the shadowy and shimmering places in the corners and under the sofa, the shelves of the closets, and the attic up the pull-down stairs in the hallway ceiling.

There is no story: Her daughter fell ill. Days later her husband died. Her daughter recovered but fell ill again and never regained her strength. Didion navigates the grief. That covers it. Having a story to tell implies immutability. You either have a story or you don’t. Perhaps everyone has a story but you either find it or you circle the bucket like a baitfish waiting for the hook. It comes to two questions: Can a compelling story, rendered clumsily, lose its power? Can a pedestrian story, rendered beautifully, become significant? The answers are obvious.

I’m not sure why this so preoccupies me: of course a story is important. I suppose there’s a novelty to the phenomenon, less a search for fascinating stories than reliance upon them. Because a fascinating story can save lackluster language, writers search for the fascinating story rather than for the words to illuminate the mundane and turn a Wednesday on its ear. There’s nothing immutable in a story. Any sequence or collection or idea turns on the ability of the writer to light it up.

That I came away from The Year of Magical Thinking with that conclusion is probably fairly strange. Or perhaps it’s not. It certainly wasn’t the only thing. But Didion is a master of the mundane and unexceptional. She regularly spins gold from bits of string, illuminates the world in her own light for readers. At the very least, her writing is enough to make me miss a similar quality in the work of so many others.