Notes on Style: The Year of Magical Thinking

dunn familyIn The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didon recounts the year following the sudden death of her husband, a tragedy compounded by the admittance of her only daughter into the ICU for a case of pneumonia gone wrong, and later, a traumatic brain injury.

I love Joan for her candor, her laser acute perceptibility, and her perfect illustration of chiffon curtains.

Can I call her Joan? Probably not. But I think I will.

So much writing leaves me hanging from the rope of a vague implication. But not Joan’s. Perhaps the rules of journalism are like hurtful words, they never really leave you. Joan writes with inspiring conciseness. I once read Hemingway’s writing described as “lean, hard athletic prose,” and I think Joan’s might be his bride, wearing lace and little floral perfume.

She often writes in combinations of short sentences, the point always being much more about what she actually felt or actually saw than the mysterious way she might be able to contrive it. On page nine, she describes the scene just before her husband, John, dies of a heart attack at the dinner table:

“We had come home.

We had discussed whether to go out for dinner or eat in.

I said I would build a fire, we could eat in. I built the fire, I started dinner, I asked John if he wanted a drink.

I got him a Scotch and gave it to him in the living room where he was reading in the chair by the fire where he habitually sat.”

Photo: John Bryson/Time & Life Pictures — Getty Images

Photo: John Bryson/Time & Life Pictures — Getty Images

Her details are sparse, but she chooses carefully. In these few short lines, we learn a lot about John: he likes to eat in, drinks Scotch, enjoys reading, and keeps a routine. This method is also an interesting approach to scene writing. Joan doesn’t tell us about the mantle or candlesticks, she doesn’t mention the rug or stacks of magazines crowding the kitchen table. But in articulating precisely what we do need to know, we somehow see those things anyway.

Unarguably, Joan’s trademark is the short single sentence followed by an explicative paragraph. Other aftertastes of her life as a journalist are evident in her word choice and linking verbs. Joan uses “there was” phrases frequently, shameless in breaking the “no passive verbs” rule enforced by much of higher education. Skipping convoluted descriptions and flowery language, she writes with accessible language and yet, bleeds profound meaning.

Throughout the book, Joan repeats significant phrases. This method threads together the narrative, cultivating a connectivity that implants her messages deeper in the reader’s mind. She opens her book with these lines:

“Life changes fast

Life changes in an instant

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity (3).”

didion book coverThen on page 77, we see the same lines again. While the repetition of phrases is important for emphasizing the author’s main ideas, it also serves as a literary device to create a cyclical pattern of presentation. Joan repeats the lines “You’re safe. I’m here,” first on page 97 and then again on page 219. In both cases, the lines act as touchstones allowing her to return to important discussions introduced earlier in the book. I think of Joan’s work like a quilt of different materials sewn together on a single binding fabric.

Joan uses a similar literary stitching as she invites the reader into her reflective process by seaming together concrete and abstract realities. On pages 189 and 190 she describes how geology has taught her to find meaning in religion:

“This in turn enabled me to find meaning in the Episcopal litany, most acutely in the words as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, which I interpreted as a literal description of the constant changing of the earth, the unending erosion of the shores and mountains, the inexorable shifting of geological structures that could throw up mountains and islands and could just as reliably take them away.”

In pairing this spiritual reflection with a physical occurrence, Joan creates a bridge of mutual reference through which the reader can walk right over into the menagerie of her mind. Bringing together the concrete and abstract is both a useful tool for establishing the author/reader relationship and also, another example of Joan’s brilliant, rainbow prose.

Photo: John Bryson/Time Life Pictures/Getty Image

Photo: John Bryson/Time Life Pictures/Getty Image

In the same vein, Joan artistically incorporates research, even into an emotional reflection on death and grief. On page 44 she discusses a few previously published literary studies on grief:

“Given that grief remained the most general of afflictions its literature seemed remarkably spare. There was the journal of C.S Lewis kept after the death of his wife, A Grief Observed. There was the occasional passage in one or another novel, for example Thomas Mann’s description in Magic Mountain.”

Her ability to maintain voice and the character of her narrator evidences her skill, to the extent that I wonder if she researched these things at all or if these references were knowledge already present from years of reading. I think she uses research, and also her honesty, to build ethos as a narrator. She notes on page 33 that, “I needed that first night to be alone so that he could come back. This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking.” She is telling the reader she wasn’t entirely mentally stable during this year she writes about, the year she writes about only nine months after John’s death. In understanding these things, the reader might question her reliability as a narrator, but given her candor and self-awareness, even of her delusion, we accept her reflection as valid and true.

Joan integrates a number of literary devices including anaphora and rhetorical questions, drawing particular attention to emotional explanations. On page 226, she delineates the process of recognizing why she must let go of her dead husband:

“I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.

Let them become the photograph on the table.

Let them become the name on the trust accounts.

Let go of them in the water.”

Photo: AP

Photo: Associated Press

In another example on page 181, using both anaphora and rhetorical questions, Joan explains the moment in Boston when she realizes she can’t return to the places she’s been with John because the memories are too powerful: “How could I go back to Paris without him, how could I go back to Milan, Honolulu, Bogotá?” This repetition of beginning phrases works well to highlight times that appear unusually difficult to write about or express altogether.

The rhetorical questions are effective in two ways: they serve as a guiding mechanism to direct the prose, but they also accurately capture the thought processes of a human mind. Given the subject matter of this book, the posing of questions universalizes the narrative by letting the reader more completely into the narrator’s head. The reader owns the question posed, and then the experience of the narrator becomes the experience of the reader in his/her endeavor to find answers. Furthermore, Joan builds on and cultivates author/reader intimacy by inviting the reader so fully into the psyche of the narrator.

After I finished this book, and after also reading Joan’s personal essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I feel like I need to meet her because I already know her. There were times in my English studies I questioned the Universal Paradox, the theory that we make our work more universal by making it specific, and then I read Joan. Like any true writer, she reveals her most privy thoughts and feelings to her readers.

Photo: Denis Piel

Photo: Denis Piel

She depicts these grief-stricken experiences in acute, almost chummy detail. She tells us, as readers, about their daily routine as a couple, their secret traditions and rituals, how they do Christmas and birthdays, what they eat when they go to their favorite restaurants, and why they might be overly dependent. It is in these little and deeply personal inclusions that Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne become real and living, or dead, people. People that mean something to us. People that we love and care about. People that make us turn the page.



Have you read Joan Didion? What do you think of her writing?




  1. Marianne Kranz

    I thought I was Joan Didion’s biggest fan until I read your essay. Thank you. It’s a keeper…in my JD folder.

  2. Joan Didion is one of my role models as a journalist and writer. Her prose reads effortlessly and goes straight to the point without forgetting the emotions and the facts. Thanks for sharing your analysis of the book, Jane 🙂

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