“The most terrifying verse I know: merrily merrily merrily life is but a dream.”
—Joan Didion, The Last Thing He Wanted
Three times the mother had to repeat herself, telling the daughter her father was dead. The daughter, Quintana Roo, kept forgetting because she was in and out of comas, septic shock, extubation, or neurosurgery, in one or another intensive care unit on the West Coast or the East. Halfway through this black album, The Year of Magical Thinking, the daughter is flown by medical plane from the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles to the Rusk Institute in New York, but the transfer is complicated. Through a guerrilla action by wildcat truckers who have jackknifed a semitrailer on the interstate, the ambulance must feel its way to an airport that could be in Burbank, Santa Monica, or Van Nuys, nobody seems to know for sure, where a Cessna waits with just enough room for two pilots, two paramedics, the stretcher to which Quintana is strapped, and the bench on which her mother sits, on top of oxygen canisters. And they will have to make a heartland stop:
Later we landed in a cornfield in Kansas to refuel. The pilots struck a deal with the two teenagers who managed the airstrip: during the refueling they would take their pickup to a McDonald’s and bring back hamburgers. While we waited the paramedics suggested that we take turns getting some exercise. When my turn came I stood frozen on the tarmac for a moment, ashamed to be free and outside when Quintana could not be, then walked to where the runway ended and the corn started. There was a little rain and unstable air and I imagined a tornado coming. Quintana and I were Dorothy. We were both free. In fact we were out of here.
If Didion is reminded of Oz, I am reminded of Didion. We’ve met this runway woman more than once before. In Democracy her name was Inez Victor, and after the death of her lover, Jack Lovett, in the shallow end of a hotel swimming pool in Jakarta, she moved to Kuala Lumpur:
A woman who had once thought of living in the White House was flicking termites from her teacup and telling me about landing on a series of atolls in a seven-passenger plane with a man in a body bag.
In The Last Thing He Wanted, her name was Elena McMahon, a journalist who quit reporting on a presidential campaign to wash up on the wet grass of a runway on one of those Carib-bean islands we only pay attention to when they pop up on the Bad Weather Channel, after which she disappeared into the lost clusters and corrupted data of Iran-contra. The narrator/novelist wonders
what made her think a black silk shift bought off a sale rack at Bergdorf Goodman during the New York primary was the appropriate thing to wear on an unscheduled cargo flight at one-thirty in the morning out of Fort Lauderdale– Hollywood International Airport, destination San José Costa Rica but not quite.
There is actually another Cessna in Last Thing, single-engined, “flying low, dropping a roll of toilet paper over a mangrove clearing, the paper streaming and looping as it catches on the treetops, the Cessna gaining altitude as it banks to retrace its flight path.” Inside the cardboard roll, whose ends are closed with masking tape, is a message about November 22, 1963. Inside the novel is a message from the novelist, who has become impatient with “the romance of solitude” and lost interest in such conventions of her craft as the revelation of character:
I realized that I was increasingly interested only in the technical, in how to lay down the AM-2 aluminum matting for the runway, in whether or not parallel taxiways and high-speed turnoffs must be provided, in whether an eight-thousand-foot runway requires sixty thousand square yards of operational apron or only forty thousand. If the AM-2 is laid directly over laterite instead of over plastic membrane seal, how long would we have before base failure results?
The Year of Magical Thinking requires her to be more personal. In one dream, she will be “left alone on the tarmac at Santa Monica Airport watching the planes take off one by one” after her dead husband has boarded without her. In another, a nightmare rescue fantasy, she imagines a rough flight with Quintana between Honolulu and Los Angeles:
The plane would go down. Miraculously, she and I would survive the crash, adrift in the Pacific, clinging to the debris. The dilemma was this: I would need, because I was menstruating and the blood would attract sharks, to abandon her, swim away, leave her alone.
Didion has always juxtaposed the hardware and the soft: hummingbirds and the FBI; nightmares of infant death and the light at dawn for a Pacific bomb test; disposable needles in a Snoopy wastebasket and the cost of a visa to leave Phnom Penh; four-year-olds in burning cars, rattlesnakes in playpens; earthquakes, tidal waves, Patty Hearst. Against the “hydraulic imagery” of the clandestine world, its conduits and pipelines and diversions, she opposes a gravitational imagery of black holes and weightlessness. Against dummy corporations, phantom payrolls, rocket launchers, and fragmentation mines, she opposes wild orchids washed by rain into a milky ditch of waste. Half of her last novel, The Last Thing He Wanted, was depositions, cable traffic, brokered accounts, and classified secrets. The other half was jasmine, jacaranda petals, twilight, vertigo.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, these conjunctions and abutments—scraps of poetry, cramps of memory, medical terms, body parts, bad dreams, readouts, breakdowns—amount to a kind of liturgical singsong, a whistling in the dark against a “vortex” that would otherwise swallow her whole with a hum. This is how she passes the evil hours of an evil year, with spells and amulets. Her seventy-year-old husband, John Gregory Dunne, has dropped dead of a massive heart attack in their living room in New York City, one month short of their fortieth wedding anniversary. She can’t erase his voice from the answering machine, and refuses to get rid of his shoes. Her thirty-eight-year-old daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, has only been married five months before she is out of one hospital into another, with a flu that somehow “morphed” into pneumonia and was followed by a stroke. One morning in the ICU Didion is startled to see that the monitor above her daughter’s head is dark, “that her brain waves were gone.” Without telling Quintana’s mother, the doctors have turned off her EEG. But “I had grown used to watching her brain waves. It was a way of hearing her talk.”
So we watch her listen—to the obscene susurrus of electrodes, syringes, catheter lines, breathing tubes, ultrasound, white cell counts, anticoagulants, ventricular fibbing, tracheostomies, Thallium scans, fixed pupils, and brain death, not to neglect such euphemisms as “leave the table,” which means to survive surgery, and “subacute rehab facility,” which means a nursing home. But she also consults texts by Shakespeare, Philippe Ariès, William Styron, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sigmund Freud, W.H. Auden, E.E. Cummings, Melanie Klein, Walter Savage Landor, C.S. Lewis, Matthew Arnold, D.H. Lawrence, Delmore Schwartz, Dylan Thomas, Emily Post, and Euripides. And, simultaneously, she is watching and listening to herself. How does she measure up to the stalwart grieving behaviors of dolphins and geese?
We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.
Nor did this book have any way of knowing that Quintana would die this August, twenty months after her father. At New York–Presbyterian Hospital, where John Dunne is pronounced dead, a social worker says to a doctor about the brand-new widow: “It’s okay. She’s a pretty cool customer.” Little did they know. What she was really thinking was “I needed to be alone so that he could come back.”
“I realized that my impression of myself had been of someone who could look for, and find, the upside in any situation. I had believed in the logic of popular songs. I had looked for the silver lining. I had walked on through the storm. It occurs to me now that these were not even the songs of my generation.”
—The Year of Magical Thinking
In a 1997 appreciation, practically a CAT scan, of Joan Didion’s novels and essays in these pages, Elizabeth Hardwick spoke of “a carefully designed frieze of the fracture and splinter in her characters’ comprehension of the world,” “a structure for the fadings and erasures of experience,” and, to accommodate “the extreme fluidity of the fictional landscape,” a narrative method of “peculiar restlessness and unease.” She cited bereaved mothers, damaged daughters, “percussive…dialogue,” and “sleepwalking players”; a martyred “facticity” and revelations “of incapacity, doubt, irresolution, and inattention”; “a sort of cocoon of melancholy,” “a sort of computer lyricism,” and “a sort of muscular assurance and confidence”; a “witchery” of “uncompromising imagination” and “an obsessive attraction to the disjunctive and paradoxical in American national policy and to the somnolent, careless decisions made in private life.”
All quite true, but Hardwick missed “the upside in any situation.” Me, too. Didion and I were neophytes in Manhattan during the late-Fifties Ike Snooze, both published by William F. Buckley Jr. in National Review alongside such equally unlikely beginning writers as Garry Wills, Renata Adler, and Arlene Croce, back when Buckley hired the unknown young just because he liked our zippy lip and figured he’d take care of our politics with the charismatic science of his own personality. Later, ruefully, he called us “the apostates.” So I’ve been reading Didion ever since she started doing it for money, have known her well enough to nod at for almost as long, have reviewed most of her books since Play It As It Lays, and cannot pretend to objectivity. Even when I take furious exception to something she says—about Joan Baez, for instance: “So now the girl whose life is a crystal teardrop has her own place, a place where the sun shines and the ambiguities can be set aside a little while longer”; or such condescension as “the kind of jazz people used to have on their record players when everyone who believed in the Family of Man bought Scandinavian stainless-steel flatware and voted for Adlai Stevenson”—I remain a partisan, in part because I’ve been trying for four decades to figure out why her sentences are better than mine or yours…something about cadence. They come at you, if not from ambush, then in gnomic haikus, icepick laser beams, or waves. Even the space on the page around these sentences is more interesting than could be expected, as if to square a sandbox for the Sphinx.