Friday, July 24, 2009

The Monkey Reads: On Death

The Year of Magical Thinking
By Joan Didion
Leave it to Didion's short, sharp new-journalism-defining style to examine the grieving process with both a microscope and telescope. As with her other non-fiction writing, Didion inserts herself into the equation carefully and well, a feat often imitated but rarely duplicated or perfected by generations of others who've attempted reporter-as-the-story writing.

Discussing her life and her emotions is essential for a book about the death of her husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne. But her research and explanations of the cause of death, and how hospitals and other medical staff in the United States deal with death, pulls back just far enough to let the writing function as an examination of our attitudes toward death all while reminding the reader of the very real event that triggered Didion's words.

Identified early on by hospital staff as a "cool customer" because she didn't instantly sob and rend her clothing at the news of her husband's death, Didion immediately -- perhaps uncontrollably -- goes into reporter mode and learns what being a "cool customer" means, even as the layers of her grief peel away. With each layer comes a new discovery about mourning, what we allow ourselves to do and show when everyone around us knows of our personal tragedy.

For all the sadness (her daughter Quintana is fatally ill throughout the course of the book) Didion squeezes some humor out of the story. An attempt to take up crossword puzzles reveals how distracted she is. Later when she reports to a friend that she and her daughter split a Big Mac during a cross-country flight with two medics, Didion's daughter is conscious enough to correct her. It was a Quarter Pounder they ate.

Magical Thinking paints a tender picture of lasting love. For the reader it's a brave exposure of what goes on in the mind of a person who is just beginning to discover and navigate the empty spaces in a life no longer shared.

Reference material: Mary Roach's Stiff is a fascinating book about what happens to cadavers before and after the funeral -- a good read for the clinically minded. But William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience is a better companion to The Year of Magical Thinking. Both touch on the universal and the personal for events that are assured for all of us, and always intertwined.