I recently mentioned to a friend that I had been reading Joan Didion’s memoirs about the loss of her husband and her only child, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. “Have you seen a picture of her lately? My friend asked. “She’s quite the wizened old hag—and I don’t mean that in a bad way!” Well, she’s had a rough decade, and getting old is hard on all of us (today is, I think, Didion’s 79th birthday), though perhaps not all of us will be quite so fixated on the fact that those suede sandals with the 4-inch heels are no longer exactly comme il faut.
It is hard not to compare Year of Magical Thinking to Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story. Both are moving and surprisingly almost page-turnery, and they leave one impressed by both the universality, or at least the communicability, of grief, and also the profound weirdness of other people. One big difference between the two writers is is the way the nearly complete division of Oates’ life between the still-functional public persona JCO and the shattered, “posthumous” widow Joyce Smith. Didion is more connected to her public self, which makes her seem a bit more ‘normal,’ though perhaps also less appealing to an introvert like me.
And then there is the child, Didion’s adopted daughter Quintana Roo (if you must name your child after a Mexican state, I suppose this is a better choice than Districto Federal or Chihuahua).Here are some snapshots of Quintana as a child: when she was 5, Didion and her husband came home from an evening out and learned that Q had phoned a nearby mental hospital (supposedly the inspiration for the song “Hotel California”) and asked what she should do if she was going crazy. A few weeks later, they came home to find that she had phoned 20th Century Fox and asked what she needed to do to become a star. Once, she used markers to turn an empty box into a filing cabinet with the following compartments: Tasks, Passport, My IRA, and Little Toys.
The bogeyman who was going to steal her away or lock her in the garage was called the Broken Man (“don’t let the Broken Man get me!”). Q described him in such detail (in his 50s or so, with shiny black shoes and a blue shirt like the ones repairmen wear, his name stitched on the lapel, blue baseball cap) that her mother almost became convinced that he was real.
When Q was 14, she decided to write a novel and made some preliminary notes. A girl named Quintana thinks she is pregnant and goes to see her pediatrician. Her parents offer to pay for an abortion, but now they don’t care about her any more, even though she still lives in their big suburbia house. (Given that Q’s father, the writer John Gregory Dunne, was a pious Catholic, the abortion bit seems far-fetched.)
After this, we don’t get much until 2003, when Q, now in her late thirties, gets married (wedding described in obsessive, repetitious detail in both books), then suffers a serious of horrible medical disasters (pneumonia, embolism, brain hemorrhage) that leads to her eventual death at age 39. The devastation of grief is aptly represented by the fragmentation of narrative time and the seemingly compulsive repetition of certain images and phrases from Quintana’s childhood and final years.
But there is a certain evasiveness in the story’s lacunae—almost all that we learn of Quintana’s adult life is that she had a series of encounters with mental-health professionals, leading to a succession of diagnoses: manic depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and finally borderline personality disorder. It is surely no accident that Didion focuses on the diagnoses and their shortcomings rather than showing us what Q’s life was like and what unhappinesses led her to seek help; she is at once tormented by her failure to protect her daughter from disaster and aware of how absurd it is that parents imagine themselves capable of keeping their children safe forever (“You’re safe now, I’m here,” she tells the comatose Quintana in one ICU). She is painfully aware that she had an inadequate idea of what it would mean to raise an adopted child, and oddly defiant and defensive about her parenting (she goes into a rant, a propos de rien, about the overprotectiveness of modern parents).
Most intriguing is her response to the anticipated accusation that Q had a ‘privileged’ upbringing (she uses the quotes, I suppose, to indicate that the whole concept of privilege is a dubious one). She refuses to concede the point because of “everything that she [Q] went through.” This is pretty bizarre stuff—who ever said that a life of privilege meant a life without trouble or woe? Lots of people named Caesar and Plantagenet and Kennedy could tell you different. And Didion seems hell-bent on detailing every brand-name accessory and bit of VIP swank in Q’s life, from the Saks layette and bassinette (sp?) to the West La-de-da School for Girls to the Holly’s chiffon hearts and lettuce edges from Bendel’s on West 57th Street (I have no clue what those things are, but I’m sure they’re posh) to a rock concert, leaving in the band’s limo and heading back to the hotel for midnight caviar (at age 8 I think), to summering (age 14) with Natasha Richardson at her father’s villa(or rather compound) above St. Tropez, to the wedding cake from Paillard…. It goes on and on.
What to make of this? True, Didion may have lived among the 1% for so long that she has forgotten that most people don’t have a relationship with the manicurist at the Beverly Wilshire. But there is more to the luxury litany—I think it is not the reader but the writer who supposes that material privilege is a talisman against misfortune. If one kind of magical thinking allowed Didion to believe that her husband might come back as long as she kept his shoes in the closet, there was another kind that convinced her that she could keep her daughter safe from the Broken Man and every other threat if she provided just the right outfits and just the right vacation spots and just the right connections. It was a silly way to think, but nobody deserves to have her delusions smashed so pitilessly.
PS: I have written about Auden’s “Funeral Blues,” wondering if we are really expected to take seriously its goofy hyperbole. Didion certainly seems to think so: she wanted to read it at her husband’s funeral, but Quintana objected vehemently.