Through a mirror darkly

“My only advantage as a reporter,” wrote Joan Didion in 1968, “is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does.”

In the nearly 40 years since she wrote this, Didion has reported on landscape and presidential politics, on America and on movies. She has written on a vast variety of books for “The New York Review of Books.” In many of these essays, Didion was either a character or a prism through which her observations shone. She may have been a danger to others—or to others’ books—but she wasn’t surely a danger to herself.

Didion puts her presence to the most demanding test of all in her latest book, The Year of Magical Thinking, a harrowing chronicle of the 365 days she spent coping with two sudden changes in her private life.

On Dec. 25, 2003, Didion’s only daughter, Quintana Roo Didion, was admitted to the ICU of Beth Israel Hospital in a state of septic shock. Five days later, Didion’s husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died of a massive coronary.

The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s attempt to atomize her response to these events, to perhaps gain some control over them by putting it all down and defining her experience, all the time forbidding that her prose succumb to the weaknesses of sentimentality.

Grief is different than shock, she writes. “Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”

This is as close to sounding overwhelmed as Didion comes in this book. Through the rest, she remains cool and detached, as though watching herself through two-way glass. When she arrives at the hospital the night of her husband’s admission, her first words are “He’s dead, isn’t he,” which earns her the title of “cool customer” from her social worker.

“I wondered what an uncool customer would be allowed to do,” she writes later about returning home to an empty apartment that night. “Break down? Require sedation? Scream?”

If Didion’s steely containment seems strange, almost reptilian, one must also say she didn’t exactly have time to “break down.” For shortly after Dunne died, their once-healthy daughter went from bad to worse, later requiring brain surgery and physical therapy. Shortly after the completion of this book, she died.

Loss this savage and pointless ought to destroy one’s ability to think—and for a long time, Didion writes, it did.

“On most surface levels I seemed rational,” she recalls. But deep inside, she harbored the hidden focus of bringing her husband back. “Seeing it clearly,” she writes about her state of mind after a few months, “did not allow me to give away the clothes he would need.”

If Didion were a younger writer, she might have told this entire story in a confessional voice—or even worse, entirely in the present tense—but she hasn’t. The Year of Magical Thinking juggles several narrative threads simultaneously.

In addition to telling us what happened, and how she reacted, Didion contextualizes her own grief within the literature of loss. She reads poems and listens to music, studies the etiquette of grief, and of course, shows how temporary is the stay they buy against her wild mourning.

All the while Didion attempts to avoid “the vortex effect” of spiraling backward into memories that might fool her into thinking that her husband is still with her, or that he could be brought back.

Stylistically, this is not Didion’s most beautiful writing—it is too circumscribed to be that. But it is the most awesome performance of both participating in an event and watching it that she will ever put on.

Would that it were just a performance—an act of fiction. But it’s not. And this is the strange thing about The Year of Magical Thinking. For even though Didion doesn’t allow herself to break down, only a terribly controlled reader will be able to match the feat.