Recently I picked up Joan Didion’s essay collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem because I needed a nonfiction book and was in the mood for some classic essays. And classic they were. I liked them so much I wanted to read more Didion right away, and as I had The Year of Magical Thinking on hand, I picked that up. It, too, was very, very good. I liked the essays better, by a little bit, but both books are great examples of Didion’s voice: clear, pared down, melancholy, implying rather than spelling things out. Both books are about loss, The Year of Magical Thinking most obviously as it tells the story of her husband’s death, but Slouching Toward Bethlehem is also about the loss of ideals and dreams in California, and sometimes in Didion’s own life. There is an elegaic tone to Didion’s writing, even when her topic isn’t obviously loss, but it’s never sentimental; instead it’s almost numb, reflecting her inability to change anything. She witnesses but has no power, except the power to write about what she sees.
Critics have written about the differences between The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates’s own grief memoir A Widow’s Story, which I read earlier this year. But the entire time I was reading Didion, I kept thinking about the similarities between the two. The books have the same structure: they cover about a year’s worth of time after the husband’s death, they tell in great detail the story of the death itself, dwelling on and returning to the details of the death scene, trying to figure out how it could have happened. They tell of kind and not-so-kind friends who try to offer support, and of reading their husband’s writing in search of clues that might tell them something new about their lost one. They also are going through a traumatic experience from a place of great privilege: their husbands will get obituaries in famous newspapers and will be mourned by strangers and neither needs to worry about financial security. This makes a difference in some ways and in others it doesn’t: they are describing an experience many people have gone through or will, but theirs is not exactly a universal story. Still, both books offer much to think about — and to feel. If Oates’s book speaks more on an emotional level — and I was riveted by the raw emotion on the page as well as horrified by it — I admired Didion’s resolve not to accept comfort that violates long-held intellectual beliefs. She knows there is no God to create meaning out of her loss; all there is is change and all she can do is watch change as it happens.
I thought when I picked up The Year of Magical Thinking that reading Blue Nights right away might be more grief memoir than I could handle, but I don’t feel that way now. Reading two grief memoirs by Oates might be more than I can handle, but Didion is not such an emotionally raw writer. But I don’t have Blue Nights on hand, so that reading will wait until I find a copy somewhere.