I first read Joan Didion when I was in college. Reading Play it as it Lays was one of the most brutal, emotionally lacerating experiences in literature I have ever had. Her writing was so clear and sharp I felt I was bleeding invisibly onto the pages as I raced through the book. It seemed strange to connect that coolly distant photograph of the author, beautiful and unflinching, staring at the camera with those fathomless eyes, with the emotional wasteland of her novel. Somehow I remember little of the actual story, only the physical sensation it left me with. I have always felt that there is something of the desert in the words of California writers, that bareness, that stark clarity of words, which comes out most strongly in Didion.
Some years went by. Didion lay forgotten on the shelf. It would take tragedy and a new book before I would come back to her again.
I was, thanks to Vanity Fair magazine, aware of the writer Dominick Dunne, aware that his brother John Gregory Dunne was Didion's husband, that the two had been inseperable in life and work for some forty years. It was from Vanity Fair that I learned John Gregory Dunne had died, suddenly, at the end of 2003, and that when he died their daughter Quintana lay in a coma in a New York hospital. Another year and a half would pass before I began reading Didion again.
Some time in the late summer or early fall of 2005 a haunting portrait of Joan Didion appeared on the cover of The New York TImes Magazine. She is a tiny wisp of a woman, with beautiful eyes, and she was grieving for her husband, for her daughter who would recover from her coma, suffer various relapses, and spend over a year in and out of hospitals before dying at the end of August, 2005. Inside was an excerpt from The Year of Magical Thinking, which sounds like a happy work, but is not. Very quickly I was in tears, weeping silently for her grief, at the stark description of the moment of Dunne's death, the trip to the hospital, the details of returning to a house, a life that did not contain her husband of forty years.
A short while later the book was published, and I bought it immediately, devoured it, wept into the pages. As well as coping with the awful numbness of loss Didion was also having to help their daughter as she recovered from her illness. Her description of how she made it through the days, the memorial service, the sorting through his things, the friends and family surrounding her, was intertwined with memories of married life, heartbreakingly intimate glimpses into the inner workings of a married life. There was a beautiful clarity to her words, like cool water, or a mountain sculpted of sand. I was fortunate enough to attend a reading given by Didion at the Seattle Public Library; I was even more fortunate to be allowed to sit on the floor, practically at her feet. (In another stroke of luck, I managed to get my copy of the book autographed). The words took on a new shape, nuance, in her flat, faintly gravelly voice. I would recognize that voice anywhere. As she spoke, her face came alive and you could see how beautiful she was.
I was talking about The Year of Magical Thinking with a friend not too long ago, who felt that the book was too repetitive, that it went on for far too long. It's true, some things are repeated again and again, like in a song where the same melody comes back at different points of the piece. There is the sensation that this repetitiveness was a way of letting go of the grief, or at least a way of processing the unbearableness of loss, that the book was written in a flood, an avalanche of words, as a way of sorting through the memories and emotions of that first year. Life changes fast, she says. Life changes in an instant.