Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Defending Joan Didion

I haven't even gotten started yet, and already I have to admit that the title of this blog is one of the stupider ones I've come up with over the past couple of years. This year's winner of the National Book Award, Joan Didion needs to be defended by me like I need a 1.5-pound bag of chocolate-covered Oreos, which is not at all. But as in the case of the Oreos, here I go anyway:

Back in late May, I read THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, Joan Didion's latest book. It's a memoir of the year following her husband's (writer John Gregory Dunne) sudden death and the mysterious and ultimately fatal illness of their daughter, Quintana. A fan of Didion's writing ever since I was in high school, I had wanted to read this book for several months. After my father died, I only wanted to "spend time" with writers who were also somehow grieving, so I ordered a copy from

I read the book quickly. It hurt, but it also made me feel better. Didion was just as much in denial about her husband's condition as I was about my father's condition. I reread it immediately -- too much of a combination of good writing and grief to fully digest in one reading.

When I wasn't reading the book, I was thinking about the book. Some people might even say brooding, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Brooding gets a lot of unfair press, but many times, it's just another way for extroverts to slam introverts -- kind of like the "loner" label.

So anyway, I was thinking/brooding about THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, and I followed my usual compulsion to go to Amazon and read reviews of the book. I went from brooding to ENRAGED in about 15 minutes!

Yes, I know. Reviews are opinions, and opinions are like...well, my father always said "noses" and my father-in-law cites a part a little lower on the body. Many of the reviews are favorable, but there are quite a number that are mean and stupid enough to have left me gasping.

These reviewers wrote that they didn't "believe that [Didion] was actually mourning". They wrote that she was "cold and aloof". Because Didion wrote of the lifestyle she and her husband shared and enjoyed over the years which included traveling to Paris, one reviewer said that Didion was more interested in "showing that she's better than other people". Another reviewer indicated that Didion was cool and calculating and merely using these sad incidents in her life "with an eye toward publication". A charge repeatedly leveled at her was that her memoir wasn't "inspirational".

Sometimes, I just really hate our society. Ever increasingly, it cannot and will not understand anything that's not totally and absolutely drenched in emotion. Not just emotion though -- it's got to be the kind of emotion that can be instantly perceived in the length of a 10-second video clip: Big salty tears, crumpled faces, runny noses, loud sobbing and a steady Run! Don't Walk! progress towards "getting over it" and wasting no time being an inspiration to others. If you're not doing all that, well sorry, you're not authentic enough. You're not really grieving.

Yes, I'm the big salty tears, etc. type, and I would win approval (although I spit on their approval) from these dumb-ass reviewers up to a point: I will not rush to get over my sadness, and I'll be damned if I'll be an inspiration. (I've come to hate that word now.) Every moment and every bit of my mourning --and Joan Didion's, for that matter -- is valid, and I bristle at anyone who would dare to tell me otherwise.

Even though I would have despised these reviewers for slamming THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, I would have respected their opinions if they'd slammed it thoughtfully and intelligently. Instead, they sat down at the keyboard and typed out their cutting remarks without even taking into account 2 things:

1. THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING can't possibly be the type of book that these people think they require. Didion is, and always has been, -- at least, in her writing -- very cerebral. She owns up to this. She doesn't pretend to be a damn huggybear. This is one of the things that makes her such a powerful writer.

2. THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING can't possibly be the type of book that these people think is a "proper" book about grief. Didion is working from a position of extreme denial and shock. She's frozen with shock and grief -- so much, I guess, that it's been mistaken for "coldness" by people who can't understand mourning except in the way that's presented to them on Oprah each weekday afternoon.

I can read Joan Didion and understand that she's suffering. Does that mean that I'm cerebral? Of course not! Why can't people see the great effort that it costs her to detach so she can report and explain in scalpel-precise prose? Why is it that all they can see is the detachment? It doesn't take a genius or even particularly careful reading. Who could fail to be moved when Didion realizes that she's holding back a pair of her husband's shoes from the charity donation pile because when he comes back, he'll need something to wear?

All of this reminds me of Freshman Composition class almost 27 years ago. We were assigned to read Didion's famous essay about her life with migraine headaches, In Bed. (This essay is available online; all you have to do is a search with "Joan Didion" and "migraine" -- ordinarily, I'd do a link, but I'm in a bad mood, as you can see.)

In Bed turned out to be my favorite essay during this course. I read it repeatedly. From the first reading, I completely trusted the integrity of Didion's writing. I could feel her headaches. I got headaches reading about hers. In class, I was dismayed when my classmates dismissed the essay as "overwrought" and "self-indulgent" and "overreacting".

Then and now, it seems as if she's being accused of the same sort of thing: Her feelings aren't authentic enough. Why is she making such a big deal out of nothing? was the consensus back in my Freshman Comp class. Now, among the Amazon reviewers, it's changed to: She should be making a bigger deal out of this! Same song, new verse. It makes me sick.

In addition to the abovementioned insults, these "critics" of THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING whined that the book was "repetitive." This charge was almost laughably annoying, because the repetition is one of the great strengths of the book. Didion is in shock and denial. She's showing how her thoughts were turning and turning, trying to make sense of it all, and at first, getting nowhere like the hamster on its wheel. (When my father died, I felt that same sense of going round and round with my pain -- kind of like a pyschological Catherine wheel.)

Maybe people can't help it; they only know what they've been taught by the media. But I can't help it either! I get beside myself when I read the reviewer who wrote that she and her book group read THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING and "unanimously hated it". I'll never see them, but I imagine a group of glossy and carefully shellacked people aged 30-50, and if it were possible to crack them open, inside are brains like helium balloons and souls that resemble a single Raisinet. I cringe with fury at the reviewer who writes dismissively that it's not "moving" or "helpful" or "the best book on grief" as if you could possibly compare such things the way you'd compare laundry detergents!

My teeth clench and unclench and reclench. Actively despising these people is exhausting, but since I'm defending Joan Didion, it feels like a good day's work. To be painfully honest, I must admit that I'm probably more like those assholes than I am like Joan Didion. If I were more like Didion, this blog entry would be cool and contained instead of foaming and seething, and a hundred times more powerful because of its restraint.

It's like the wheel again -- I go round and round -- this time, stubbornly. I cannot comprehend why those other readers can't comprehend. Why can't they see? Even more, why can't they accept that grief is different for every person?

Gawain: "I tell you that I shall not live two days."

That refrain she chose was both beautiful and cruel in its perfection. It hurts my heart to read it, but it's a pain I would not do without. I believe Joan Didion. I believe her grief.


Anonymous said...

Here here! I read Didion's book and found it painful and astonishing. I, too, was mortified by the shocking stupidity of the reviews left at Amazon. You'd think I'd have learned by now not to bother reading them.

Excellent post. Too right.

Les said...

I agree with both of you. I read Didion's book a few months after the death of my 24-yr-old stepdaughter and felt that she was spot on in her descriptions of grief. The negative reviews made me angry, too.

Another interesting/helpful book I read is Neal Peart's Ghost Rider. Lost his wife and daughter within one year of each other. Heartbreaking, but like you, I wanted/needed to read everything I could about grief so I could understand what the hell I was feeling.

I stumbled upon your blog while reading another book lover's blog. Hope you don't mind my comment. I'll try to dig up my review on Didion's book (I wrote it before I started my book blog).