Monday, August 07, 2006

"Reading" Didion cross country

I did some driving this past weekend, and as is my wont, I listened to a book on CD from the local public library. (I have a feeling that the librarians there think I'm illiterate because I've never borrowed an actual book from them, but only books on tape and CD.)

For most of the trip, I listened to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. The book frustrated me on several fronts. Here's a problem, though. At one point, Didion basically says that if you've never lost a spouse, you shouldn't criticize someone who has about their grieving or mourning or whatever. I want to specify that my criticism isn't about her grieving process, but about the book she's written. Inasmuch as the book seems part and parcel of her process, I may seem to be criticizing that, but when she chose to publish the book, she pushed it beyond grieving process and into being another text.

And, perhaps she's right; having never lost a spouse, I may completely lack the understanding she now claims. I may be a heartless and uncaring Bardiac. But in some ways it feels like the old Freudian repression game: if I say, "no, I don't feel X," a Freudian can say, you're just repressing. But what if I really don't feel X? There's no way to demonstrate it convincingly to the person who insists I'm only repressing.

Now, I've only listened to the book once, and only listened, so I may have missed things, or certain aspects of the book might have been more irritating than they would have been had I been physically reading and turning the pages. I have a habit of rereading or skimming when I read, and I don't do that sort of thing while I'm driving and listening to a CD. At any rate, I can't say what page things are on or even what chapter, because I also wasn't taking notes.

While I'm mostly critical of the book, I want to acknowledge that it's got some really good points. When she talks about specifics such as needing to reread the nurses' and autopsy reports or about the research she did on grieving, she has great insights and gets her points across really well.

The most astute part of her book comes in her limited critique of the ways our culture handles grieving: we mostly don't want to hear about it, don't want mourners to cry in public, don't want to hold someone's hand when they're sad or just sit there to share the pain. We're selfish so-and-sos. We hide death away, and then find ourselves (as a culture) surprised at our own grief and mourning. The problem is, Didion seems to think she's making a unique discovery here; if she'd read Dorcasina or Badger, or even cared about the widows and widowers she's undoubtedly known along the years, she'd be more aware of how really nasty our culture is on some fronts. It's unfair to criticize her for omissions, perhaps, but I really wish Didion had been more introspective about her own habits and understandings before her husband's death.

My most serious criticism of the book is that it's too long, and too repetitive. Individual sentences (and short passages) get repeated more than is effective; two or three repetitions would be more effective than the many repetitions are. She could get across the stream of consciousness kinds of effects with fewer examples; each of those examples would stand out better than they do now. In short, she needed an editor who'd cut her text shorter, perhaps half the length, or maybe even to a longish essay.

The book, for those who haven't read it, focuses on her reaction to her husband's death over the course of a year; her experience is complicated by her daughter's illnesses. For me, the information about her daughter's illnesses seemed invasive and weirdly self-centered. It was as if Didion's reactions to her daughter's experience were that it was all about Didion. I have no sense of Didion's intimacy with her daughter, because nothing of that comes across. She doesn't give the reader a sense of her daughter as a person, really, but more as an extension of Didion herself, if that makes sense.

And that made the information about her daughter's illness seem invasive and out of place. I have no idea if the daughter (Quintana) gave Didion permission to write publicly about her illness because I didn't hear her say so (such a permission could have been reported in a note not read, or I could have missed it while negotiating the confusing road constructions I passed). So it felt to me that Didion was using her daughter somehow. (And since Didion's a professional author and makes a living writing, that felt unethical, as though she's making money off her daughter's illness.)

My third critique is that Didion seems so unaware of her privilege in so many ways. I'm so much a Hobbesian in some ways: the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (Leviathan). If someone hasn't had a large share of pain and grief, then they've been lucky. (I've been very lucky.) Didion's evidently been very lucky.

Partly, especially in the US, death isn't familiar to us the way it has been historically or still is in most parts of the world. I've never washed a body to prepare it for burial, but it's hard for me to believe that a woman could have reached my age (46) in early modern England without having done so, probably more than a few times.

I want her to realize that people die all the time, and that she's been basically living a fantasy if she hadn't realized that. She hints at one point that she sort of recognizes that, but never seems to fully engage in analyzing or seeking to understand the fantasy in any sort of critical way.

For example, when Didion talks about Hiroshima or the 2004 Tsunami in the Indian Ocean, she doesn't seem to recognize that people died, much less that people grieved. She seems incapable of recognizing the grieving of people unlike herself. Similarly, when she talks about traveling, she doesn't seem to realize that her experiences hanging about at embassy functions or the like are almost surreal.

Part of the expression of privilege comes interestingly when she talks about the friends she has who can call on ambassadors, famous doctors, politicians and so on to get special favors. It sounds as if she thinks that's normal, or even right.

And she drops names like they're going out of style. She has dinner with this famous person or that, blah blah. Most of the time, the details of names seem unimportant to understanding or analyzing her grieving process, and I'm left feeling she just drops them to satisfy some feeling of importance.

So, overall, then, I think The Year of Magical Thinking could have been an outstanding book with tighter editing and more self-critical awareness and analysis, and more of a sense of respect for other people's experiences. It's still worth a good listen if you find it at your public library.

And yes, apparently I am a heartless Bardiac. Did I mention I'll be teaching Titus this semester? I'm totally jazzed!


  1. There are several writers who seem to appropriate their children as extensions of themselves, and I see it more in mothers than in fathers (not surprisingly?).

    I once worked with a Famous Poet who wrote -- and read publicly -- several poems about her daughter's first period (which had recently occurred). Hearing them in readings made me writhe... what could it feel like, having your mother control the narrative of a very personal experience like that and then flaunt it hither thither and yon like that? The thought still gives me fits.

  2. I disagree. I think Didion is actually aware of a lot of the things you argue she isn't: she is relating the stuff about how she was able to call in these outrageous favors as a way of discussing how she thought she had an armor against the blows that were raining down on her. You bet it was an assertion of importance--this is not supposed to happen to me! I'm secure! I'm...I'm...!--and it's a theme of violation and petulance that runs through the book.

    The other thing you think she's not aware of that I think she's acutely aware of--that grief makes you selfish, and self-important. People who die in a tsunami a world away are abstractions; it's sad and upsetting, but you are either lying or completely unfunctional if those deaths hit you as hard as the death of those near to you. Didion observes that with grief, it is a focus on the self--your loss--that runs against the larger, more prosaic norms of selfishness in American culture. We're supposed to grieve quietly and goodly, for everybody's else sake. We're supposed to think of the children, and move on nobly--when really we want to tear at our clothing and beat at our chests, aware only of our feelings--be damned we aren't attractive with our tears and howls and snot. Grief can make you ugly, which is one of the reasons why you lose friends.

    That's kind of what you get with this book: the tears and the snot. She's not trying to be attractive or likable. She's not writing a grief manual; she's writing a long personal essay. She's not writing about her daughter or her son-in-law's pain. She doesn't meditate or pray that her spouse is heaven. She's pissed at the world for taking people away from her, and grief made her small instead of magnanimous. I thought that made it real and compelling.

    On using her experiences with her daughter...I don't think it's unethical to write about your experiences with your children. If that's somehow a forbidden subject, then you rip away a lot of the material that women have for writing. There was a book a year or so about a woman who wrote about her experiences deciding to give birth to a developmentally disabled child. How do you know which experiences belong to you and which belong to your child, if you have shared them? And although Didion and Dunne have done movie contracts, I think she may have frankly needed the money--writers aren't like professors with steady paychecks. Maybe she did, maybe she didn't, but as Faulkner pointed out, writers are often ruthless if they want to be good.

    It doesn't make you heartless to not like a book.

  3. I was going to say much of what Chaser said--I felt that Didion was deliberately, or at any rate consciously, showing the self-absorption and selfishness of the grieving, and doing it in what I felt was a mostly effective manner.

    I quite liked the book, but perhaps mostly for its portrait of the amazing marriage that Didion and Dunne had; her descriptions of grief did sometimes seem repetitive, but when it was well done I liked the repetition since there IS a circularity to grief, after all. However, I have to say that I found the book uneven stylistically, and some of those repetitions fell flat for me, reading like a bad Didion parody rather than the best of her stuff (and I admire Didion immensely).

    Like you, I found her writing about her daughter to be sometimes distracting, but I didn't feel it to be invasive so much as I felt that it often took away from the more effective and interesting story of her grief at her husband's loss (how's THAT for heartless? I don't care about your daughter's illness! Stick to the story!). Her weaker writing also seemed to come in the passages dealing with her daughter.

    Also, knowing that her daughter died shortly before the book was published made that narrative difficult for me to read--it produced a strange mix of pity and impatience.

  4. Great post - it makes me want to start listening to books on CD! My students loved Titus when I taught it in grad school - you're a lucky Bardiac!

  5. Thanks for the insightful feedback, folks! I think you're right that she gets across the selfishness of grieving; I just think she gets it across more than she needs to, perhaps.

    I don't remember knowing that her daughter died before the book came out. But after it was in the publication process? In the book, the daughter gets out of the hospital and seems to be recovering.

    I agree that the issue of using her daughter's illness is complex. I guess because it's medical, I felt it was invasive and felt wrong to me. Maybe it's my own relationship with my mother that I'm transferring onto or reading into the book.

    And Medieval Woman, you're right! I am a VERY lucky Bardiac :)