Reading notes: Didion

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.

12 Comments

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12 responses to “Reading notes: Didion

  1. Edna DeGarmo

    I have been wanting to read Didion and you have convinced me. I keep her passage about her baby’s birthday close to my computer and it really makes me realize how much has changed in my own lifetime. I read the journals of Oates a few years ago and enjoyed it so much.

  2. Thank you! I have had Didion on my reading list for some time, your beautiful review made her books even more attractive.

  3. Interesting comparison between Didion and Oates! I’ve had Slouching Towards Bethlehem on my TBR list for ages but haven’t managed to get to it yet. I am glad to know that I have something really good to look forward to when I do finally pick it up.

  4. I found Didion’s *Year* irritating because it sounded too much as if she’d never recognized all the other widows and widowers around; it was as if she thought she’d discovered grief and being a widow for the first time ever. To me, it felt like she’d been so self-absorbed in her life that she’d never really known anyone else well enough to share their grief for more than 15 minutes, but then she expected everyone else in her life to share hers.

  5. 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

    I love that about the Slouching Toward Bethlehem essays and others of hers that I’ve read. It’s so difficult to walk that thin line of loss and sometimes wistfulness without mawkishness, without losing one’s sense of humor. I think it helps that she was an outsider to many of the scenes she’s writing about, so there’s a bit of distance built in, almost like the scenes she’s describing were lost to her even before they ended. But she also writes so beautifully about personal change, as in the “Notes from a Native Daughter” essay. The whole collection is just brilliant, I think.

  6. I read The Year of Magical Thinking when it came out and found it one of the hardest reading experiences I’d ever had. It wasn’t her writing style so much as the content. I have read her essays which I really enjoyed, too. I was only a little surprised by how little I really knew about the 60s (I would only have been a baby, but I thought I still knew about the events of that particular era). I’d definitely like to read more of her essays, but I think I may stay well away from the Oates memoir as well (knowing my response to the Didion book).

  7. Thanks for this post, I’ve been waiting for it. I appreciate how your compare Magical Thinking with Slouching Towards Bethlehem… two different kinds of loss. Also, your comparing her memoir with JCO’s. On another point, I remember in Magical Thinking Didion mentioned she read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed in her lowest moments.That’s the book I read right after reading Magical Thinking, mainly because of her mention. I wonder if she’d gleaned any insights from Lewis’s own grieving journey.

    May I also take this opportunity to wish you and yours a Merry Christmas and, enjoy your holiday reads and rest!

  8. I went through a phase in the late 80’s where I read everything that Didion had published. You capture the mood of Slouching Towards Bethlehem so well. I haven’t read anything by Didion since, although The Year of Magical Thinking has been on and off my list to read since it was published. I think it just made it back on to the list!

  9. Earlier this year I bought a compilation of Didion’s essays but have yet to get to it (same old story!). Your review has certainly bumped it up the list and next year I really, really will pick it up!

  10. I read the Year of Magical Thinking but I didn’t realize Oates had tackled the same subject! She (Oates) can be relatively hit or miss for me but this review makes me want to read and compare the two works as well…I also want to read Blue Nights in the coming year…

  11. I also want to read Blue Nights. I listened to The Year of Magical Thinking in the car which was probably a mistake since it’s hard to drive when you are crying. We teach Slouching Toward Bethlehem at my school. I didn’t think it would work because so many of the topics are dated, but the students like it. I just finished Consider the Lobster – DFW – and liked it. My favorite book of essays lately? Notes from No Man’s Land – Biss.

  12. Pingback: Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) « Smithereens

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