Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Some light summer reading
Last Tuesday night I started reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Less than 24 hours later, I had finished that book, as well as Calvin Trillin’s About Alice. This isn’t the most impressive feat of marathon reading I’ve done (reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory between sunup and sundown when I was six still tops the list), but it certainly was one of the most emotional.
I’m a firm believer that, before I start analyzing a book’s prose style or thematic elements, the first litmus test for a book should momentum: how hard is it for me to stop reading a book once I’ve started? Is the book, in metaphysical terms, a train, a speeding bullet, a stampeding elephant? Or it is a feather, a drop of rain, a gnat? Both Didion’s and Trillin’s books possess a great deal of momentum, a refreshing break to the momentum-less Your Paradise through whose pages I’ve been recently slogging (albeit happily). Some books carry the reader along through with suspense plot, others with humor, and others with stimulating knowledge. About Alice and The Year of Magical Thinking carry the reader along with immense emotional weight and acceleration.
Both books are by writers navigating life the wake of the death of their long-time spouses, both also writers. Both books are short, sweet dirges that delineate a portrait if a long-standing, deeply loving marriage The similarities end there. Trillin’s book is, as the title deftly and succinctly claims, about his wife Alice. Didion’s book, on the other hand, is about herself. It is a memoir of her grief interspersed with a description of the death of her husband, John Dunne, and the illness of her daughter, Quintanna. (Note that on the cover of the book, the letters “J”, “O”, “H”, and “N”, have been highlighted from the title and byline, although I have a feeling this was not Didion’s decision but her publisher’s.)
Didion is documenting a loss of control, something she calls a pathologic grief that manifests itself in irrational thinking as she keeps waiting, preparing, for her husband to come back. The book, although maintaining a flustered, flushed, bewildered tone, is full of schedule, repetition, and routine. Didion is obsessed with dates and times. After reading the book, the reader has the date and time of Dunne’s death memorized, and, if desired, could draw up a detailed timeline of Didion and Dunne’s life together. It is a marvelously constructed, well-crafted and well-researched piece. The book is amazingly controlled, although it claims not to be. And this works because Didion’s calmness is part of her pathologic grief, and so the pathology itself is her need to put everything in order, her need to research and write.
Phrases repeat themselves in ever-evolving iterations throughout the book, like the chorus of a song that is modified slightly after each verse. The effect is hypnotic and mesmerizing, and makes the book read more like a lyric work of prose poetry than an extended essay.
What appealed to me most about Didion’s book was, oddly enough, not her experiences of grief, but the glimpses of the writer’s process and writer’s life that spread into every corner of the book. She is struggling with her grief via a “writer’s dilemma” and has a desire to understand and control the situation by writing everything down. This process is, however, futile, as we see her search for meaning in her scattered notes on the back of grocery lists and receipts. Didion reflects, “Was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought?” (As I copied down the quote, I accidentally almost wrote “dying” instead of “writing”, which is either telling or just a coincedence.)
As she’s running from her memories she trips and stumbles into my own. I challenge any reader to get through the book without experiencing the same phenomenon: for me it occurred when Didion was covering the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. And throughout the book, as Didion was flying back and forth from New York to Los Angeles (she and her husband lives in the Sunshine State for many years, and her daughter was hospitalized on both coasts), I was taking notes with a cheesy puzzle pen I bought at LAX that says “CALIFORNIA IS A-MAZE-ING.”
Towards the end of the book, Didion reflects, “I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account.” (229) Reading those lines, I realize that I desperately want her to finish, and want to finish reading. As I was reading, I was constantly waiting, although I couldn’t tell whether I was waiting for Didion or her daughter to recover? Quintana died several months after Didion finished her manuscript.
While Didion’s book provokes analysis, Trillin’s book provokes silent reflection and reverance. About Alice is not an account of mourning; it is a eulogy for a loved woman. Trillin has packed his grief away to calmly, delicately, and respectfully create a swan song for his wife. Trillin’s pain is obliquely visible through the details of what has been remembered and what has been forgotten about his wife. It is interesting to hear how many of Trillin’s favorite memories of Alice are, according to her, fabricated or incorrect. This doesn’t trouble Trillin, or the reader, and only adds to the poignancy of his descriptions.
Which book do I recommend? Read both.
(Also: Were the publishers seriously going for something here with the covers? Notice how their covers employ almost identical color schemes and styles. Is that the convention for a book about a deceased spouse?)