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'The Year of Magical Thinking' by Joan Didion

A year of fragments, shored against the ruins

October 02, 2005|Gideon Lewis-Kraus

They are, after all, inquests Didion has made before: These lean, unsparing descriptions of her fragmentary responses are all the more powerful because the writer has spent her career outlining the magical postures of others. Again and again, she has been drawn to all varieties of what she once called "protective talismans, totems, garlands of garlic, repeated pieties." In that case, she was referring to the state of political discourse after Sept. 11. "The presence of rain at a memorial for fallen firefighters," she noted in the New York Review of Books in 2003, "was gravely reported as evidence that 'even the sky cried.' " In her year of magical thinking, such omens overcrowd her own life. She blots out portions of reality by connecting too many dots.

In the title essay of "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" about San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury in the cold spring of 1967, Didion suggested that because that generation did "not believe in words ... their only proficient vocabulary [was] in the society's platitudes." Now she admits to her own intermittent aphasia, to a wild linguistic ambivalence that runs between her limitless faith in the power of words and the suspicion that she no longer has a single useful word at her disposal.

Didion reviewed the "Left Behind" series by Tim LaHaye, Jerry B. Jenkins and others -- the eschatological thrillers that sell by the millions to evangelical Christians -- in 2003. Their rapture-bound heroes are unshakably competent: They fly airplanes, hack computers, improvise arsenals. "In many ways," she wrote, "it is from this assumption of confidence, of the ability to manage a hostile environment, that the series derives both its potency and its interest" for readers who feel overwhelmed, often by economic disadvantages. In "The Year of Magical Thinking," she writes of her helpful professional friends who "believed absolutely in their own management skills. They believed absolutely in the power of the telephone numbers they had at their fingertips" and realizes that "I had for most of my life shared the same core belief in my ability to control events."

We have come to admire and love Didion for her preternatural poise, unrivaled eye for absurdity and Orwellian distaste for cant. It is thus a difficult, moving and extraordinarily poignant experience to watch her direct such scrutiny inward. She has mentioned her instability with some frequency -- most notably in the title essay of "The White Album" (1979) -- but she's never before revealed the sort of purblind drift in which this book is steeped. She has cast herself as anxious but mostly reasonable: "an attack of vertigo and nausea," she once wrote, "does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968."

The difference between her own fragments shored against these unhappy ruins and those fragments -- fanciful wishes and narrow half-truths and gaudy amulets -- marshaled by her previous subjects is this: We are left with the impression that her near-pathological honesty will in time allow her to cope -- without magic -- with things falling apart. Didion has helped us understand and anticipate how magical thinking and its attendant self-deception have caused -- and will continue to cause -- political train wrecks, social dislocations, despair. "I have as much trouble as the next person with illusion and reality," she once confessed. Unlike most of us and most of her subjects, she has brought herself to admit it in a manner that is as artful as it is honest.

Her admissions are severe and often excruciating. They also are as instructive, resonant and searing as her 40 years of sympathetic stories about how we deny our trouble discerning illusion from reality, how we pretend that things aren't falling apart.

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