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!