Review of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (from Nov. 11, 2008)

No, this is not a perfect book, though I don’t know what it would mean to write a perfect book of this sort. I think that the most important thing to realize is that there are several possible audiences here. For those who have not experienced the sudden death of a close family member, the purposes of reading such a book could range from intellectual curiosity to emotional voyeurism (one senses that those who complained that the book was not cathartic do not understand that there is no resolution, there is no catharsis to be had, and thus they are looking for a certain kind of emotional stimulation and satisfaction, as opposed to truth, which I’m sorry to say is neither meaningful nor satisfying–they should probably rent Titanic instead). For those who have a certain intellectual curiosity about what the experience of grieving the sudden death of a loved one is like, this is a useful, and I suspect, surprising book. It is emphatically not (as one grossly insensitive reviewer called it) an account of a mental illness or a demonstration of how unfortunate it was that Ms. Didion did not receive professional grief counseling as an adjunct to the other death anaesthetization services our death-denying culture urges on us in order to help support and reassure our fellows that they and those they need are the immortals their unconscious narcissism assures them they are. This is simply how it is guys, period. And fortunately, the book is brief (though in parts repetitive even so) so the genuinely curious can get information here they would not easily get elsewhere without too much investment. The third possible audience is the recently bereaved. Here it is somewhat more difficult to assess the usefulness of the book. There are moments in it that seem to absolutely nail experiences that I’ve seen described nowhere else (all the other texts I’ve seen focus to a remarkable extent on sadness, as if this were the dominant aspect or the worst of it, perhaps because sadness is one of the few emotions which the otherwise incommunicable experience of survival shares with “ordinary” experience). Yet I suspect that survivors will find this book somewhat less useful than they might think it would be, for the simple reason that we know these things already, and there is very little cash value in seeing that one’s reactions are normal. Still… there is great value in the occasional page that captures in words what you have felt that might otherwise seem beyond description. There is perhaps a vanishingly small audience that I should also mention, last but not least, though this is more aspirational than descriptive (there should be such an audience, but probably isn’t). Montaigne said somewhere that philosophy is a preparation for death. The experiences Didion reports are quite awful and yet utterly normal, and whoever you are reading this, the odds are overwhelmingly good that you will experience them eventually. You might want to bone up beforehand.

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