Didion’s Annus Horribilis: How Grief Looks on the Page

We all saw the photo on the cover of The New York Times Magazine: a skeletal Joan Didion showing us up close the real-time re-enactment of a widow’s pain—the image of bereavement blown up like a billboard.

One glance at that photo and you’re primed for the lesson of The Year of Magical Thinking: She’s made herself into a memento mori. The woman is alive—and thinking, of course: This is Joan Didion (b. 1934), a mind famously limber, penetrating, always active—but death is inescapably near (just look in the mirror). It’s a lesson we can never properly absorb no matter how harrowing the image—because, as she points out, we’re so “open … to the persistent message that we can avert death.”

Rigorously unsentimental, clear-eyed about her own self-pity, she tells the story of the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, who collapsed at the dinner table on Dec. 30, 2003, even as their only child, Quintana, lay critically ill in the hospital. It’s a terrible sequence of events, made more terrible by the fact, unrecorded in the book, that Quintana has since died.

In the first 15 pages, Ms. Didion gives a strictly objective account of her husband’s death:

“John was talking, then he wasn’t ….

“I only remember looking up. His left hand was raised and he was slumped motionless. At first I thought he was making a failed joke, an attempt to make the difficulty of the day seem manageable.

“I remember saying Don’t do that.

“When he did not respond my first thought was that he had started to eat and choked. I remember trying to lift him far enough from the back of the chair to give him the Heimlich. I remember the sense of his weight as he fell forward, first against the table, then to the floor.”

She’s even lucid about her own confusion. As the social worker assigned to the new widow instantly recognizes, Ms. Didion is “a pretty cool customer.”

But she doesn’t get the chance to mourn her husband properly, because her daughter, who was slowly recovering from the pneumonia and septic shock that had landed her in the intensive-care unit, suffers another blow: Three months after John collapsed, Quintana collapses. Disembarking at LAX from a transcontinental flight, she crumples to the ground, felled by a subdural hematoma—bleeding inside the skull putting pressure on the brain. Saved by emergency neurosurgery, she spends another month in the hospital, then rehab …. In all, about half of Ms. Didion’s year is swallowed up by medical trauma.

She reports on the experience, a journalist on the job, and when she’s delivering the news about what happened to her family in 2004, the writing is brutally effective. But about halfway through the book, the narrative disintegrates; in its place we get a series of shattered echoes.

There are really two books here: One is a no-nonsense account of what happened to John and Quintana; the other, which gradually takes over, is a demonstration on the page of how grief works. This other book traces torturous, seemingly random associations of memory—a relentlessly hurtful jumble that always leads back to the dismal reality of “unending absence.” Instead of spooling out a roughly coherent back story—an account of an unusually close 40-year marriage; tandem careers as writers; a cherished adopted daughter, brought home when she was just 3 days old—Ms. Didion lays out snippets of her past in a literally deranged sequence. (She quotes Eliot: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”) It’s like the strewn wreckage after a storm.

She explains what she calls “the vortex effect”: Any memory, however trivial, can suck her back to an irretrievable yesterday when John was alive, Quintana healthy. “The way you got sideswiped was by going back.”

The vortex often leads to regret—the poor donkey of sorrow loaded with obscure guilt. “Would I need to relive every mistake?” she asks. “If by accident I remembered the morning we drove down to St.-Tropez from Tony Richardson’s house in the hills and had coffee on the street and bought the fish for dinner would I also need to remember the night I refused to swim in the moonlight because the Mediterranean was polluted and I had a cut on my leg?” How did we get to France? What’s Tony Richardson doing in the picture?

The idea behind the fracturing of The Year of Magical Thinking is to reproduce a mourner’s agonized state of mind, to mimic the effects of grief in a radically attenuated narrative pattern. That may sound like a good idea, but I don’t think it works. The splintered reveries are too scattered in time and place, both too thin and too crowded—sprinkled with names that may mean something to us in other contexts but add nothing here (Tony Richardson is one of dozens of famous friends mentioned in passing). I’d like to read about Ms. Didion’s marriage, but I’d like her to write about it as a reporter, not as a mourner.

It’s hard to quarrel with a book so sad, so nakedly expressive of the author’s pain. But as Ms. Didion reminds us, in addition to being a cool customer, she’s a pro. (“I kept telling myself that I had a deadline, that John and I never missed deadlines …. You’re a professional. Finish the piece.”) Being a pro also means that if she doesn’t know how to accept criticism, at least she knows how to ignore it.

There are beautiful passages everywhere in The Year of Magical Thinking. Here’s an example from the very end:

“We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”

But elsewhere, caught in the vortex or struggling to avoid it, she’s in no condition to worry about the reader. It’s simply too soon. For now, quite rightly, she’s taking care of herself.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.