Recently acquired a set of Fourth Estate’s 25th anniversary limited-edition hardbacks, one of which – The year of magical thinking – is pictured above. Theatre designer Bob Crowley is responsible for the cover, fitting since he worked on the book’s stage adaptation.
Superstition is, I think, something that most of us court at one time or another, I used to believe in what I liked to call the ‘cosmic seesaw’. This meant that if something bad happened to me I could shrug it off, the seesaw would have to bring me something good in return, which was comforting. However, if something good happened to me I could never fully enjoy it – the seesaw giveth, the seesaw taketh away. It’s kind of like karma, only the seesaw doesn’t give a damn if you’re naughty or nice.
With that in mind, I can understand part of Joan Didion’s mindset in The year of magical thinking, which details the year following her husband’s death. For her, ‘magical thinking’ is her rational mind attempting to assimilate her loss: if she’d read the signs she could have prevented it; and if she were to perform the correct rituals she might be able to bring him back.
‘I could not give away the rest of his shoes.
I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need shoes if he was to return.’
I often struggle with so-called mourning literature as it must, necessarily, be specific; it makes me an unwilling voyeur intruding on a life that I ultimately have no part or interest in. I feel like a fraud for glossing over the details of a life so that I can get to the parts where something is actually communicated between writer and reader. More than once I determined to abandon this book to its grief, but for some reason I could not.
What is grief? I’ve been to the funerals of grandparents, but no matter how close to them I was, their deaths did not cause this utter dislocation of the everyday that Didion talks about. I realised that my notions of grief have, perhaps naturally, come from literature, television and film; and that grief is for me, in a sense, unreal.
‘We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.’
Is grief something that culture simply cannot communicate, whatever the medium, or is it our inability to comprehend that is at fault? No matter how much I feel I’ve taken away from this book, will I have any clearer a picture of what grief is?
‘Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.’
This isn’t a book that will give you any of the answers, and, unlike many others, it doesn’t pretend to. It is a eulogy for a man, a marriage and a way of life; all three perhaps taken for granted at one time or another, but who among us cannot say the same? Beyond the name-dropping, the illustrious career, the holidaying in Malibu and Honolulu, this book earnestly tries to provide some perspective on the nature of human existence. We’re not in control, no matter how much we like to think we are; you can read the signs and enact the rituals, but
‘Leis go brown, tectonic plates shift, deep currents move, islands vanish, rooms get forgotten.’
Our time here is brief, the duration of our stay not of our choosing. It’s sometimes helpful to be reminded that our lives are not constants, that the world will quite happily go along without us, ‘As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end’. I won’t necessarily remember this state of mind tomorrow, or next week, but for brief moments this book gave me fleeting glimpses of clarity and perspective, which I guess is as much as any of us can hope for.