A few months ago I posted about a book I read that changed my life. I bought copies for everyone I know. I quoted it extensively. I legitimately considered applying to an additional grad program to meet the author.
I love books like that, books that take me away from myself.
I want to share books like that.
I was late to the Joan Didion game, and I hate being late to anything, especially literature. It’s overwhelming to love books. There’s so many novels out there, so many great ones! How do you choose? How do you find them? It feels so rare to have a take-my-breath-away book, and yet I know I’ve barely touched the surface of Great Books.
Nick Hornby, in his brilliant Polysyllabic Spree says:
Even if you love movies and music as much as you do books, it’s still, in any given four week period, way, way more likely you’ll find a great book that you haven’t read than a great movie you haven’t seen, or a great album you haven’t heard: the assiduous consumer will eventually exhaust movies and music. Sure, there will always be gaps and blind spots, but I’ve been watching and listening for a long time, and I’ll never again have the feeling everyone has with literature: that we can’t get through the good novels published in the last six months, let alone those published since publishing began.
He also says this, which deserves posting:
Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else. If we played cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go 15 rounds in the ring against the best that any other art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. “The Magic Flute” v. Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six. “The Last Supper” v. Crime and Punishment? Fyodor on points. See? I mean, I don’t know how scientific this is, but it feels like the novels are walking it. You might get the occasional exception -– “Blonde on Blonde” might mash up The Old Curiosity Shop, say, and I wouldn’t give much for Pale Fire’s chance against Citizen Kane. And every now and again you’d get a shock, because that happens in sport, so Back to the Future III might land a lucky punch on Rabbit, Run; but I’m still backing literature 29 times out of 30.
There is a man in Malibu who looks like Nick Hornby. He’s bald and middle aged and when I see him I start to giggle and form marriage proposals.
But that’s neither here nor there.
Joan Didion came into my life like all good authors and books do: through a combination of luck and the universe conspiring.
I really believe that, you know. Joan was pulled into my life because I needed her. There were recommendations from authors I admire, quotes on my Instagram feed, articles and references and this and this and THIS and it got LOUDER AND LOUDER until I picked her up BECAUSE I HAD TO.
That’s what’s happening with me and Anaïs Nin right now. I’ll keep you posted.
The Year of Magical Thinking is the story of the year after Joan Didion’s beloved husband (and acclaimed writer ) John Gregory Dunne died. Joan shares their lives together, how good they had it. She reflects on the meaning of existence, the meaning of marriage, the meaning of loss. She is direct about her pain, she is direct about her life.
That’s the word I would use when describing Joan’s writing: direct.
I was surprised. Joan is always mentioned in relation to high art writing. I expected a David Foster Wallace type situation where I would pull out the massive book with a study guide alongside it and sludge through the words, telling myself this was genius and I would eventually see that in the end.
Joan doesn’t try to be genius, she tries to be honest.
In that process lays her genius.
The Year of Magical Thinking did a lot of things for me, but mostly it gave me a marriage I can identify with. Don’t you like that phrase? I read it on ManRepeller, Leandra said something along the lines of, “when you see a marriage that you don’t identify with,” and I thought, yes! That’s what I’ve been trying to say for so long.
We all want to identify with the world around us and Joan makes me identify. I want the life she led, a life full of hard work and hard play. An equal partner to watch the mustard in Malibu grow.
Joan lived in Malibu for several years. It’s a prominent part of the book, a city she places as an equal player to say, New York, or LA proper. I appreciate that. To me, Malibu is an equal player with New York. In a city Fantasy Boxing League, Malibu is up there, fighting to the death with New York, throwing its waves and orchids and burritos in the face of New York’s enormous muscles, knowing it probably won’t win, but trying anyway. I appreciate Joan for seeing this.
Perhaps you’ve all read The Year of Magical Thinking by now. Like I said, I’m late to the party. But in case you haven’t, in case you need a book that will carry you away with its prose, a relationship to aspire to, thoughts on the world to have, well, I suggest you read it.
Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.
We are not idealized wild things.
We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.
I remember thinking that I needed to discus this with John.
There was nothing I did not discuss with John.
Because we were both writers and both worked at home our days were filled with the sound of each other’s voices.
I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted.
As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.
Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.
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.
Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.
Was it about faith or was it about grief?
Were faith and grief the same thing?
Were we unusually dependent on one another the summer we swam and watched Tenko and went to dinner at Morton’s?
Or were we unusually lucky?
What would I give to be able to discuss this with John?
What would I give to be able to discuss anything at all with John? What would I give to be able to say one small thing that made him happy? What would that one small thing be? If I said it in time would it have worked?
Why was the pencil so faint, I wondered.
Why would he use a pencil that barely left a mark.
When did he begin to see himself as dead?
I used to tell John my dreams, not to understand them but to get rid of them, clear my mind for the day. Don’t tell me your dream, he would say when I woke in the morning, but in the end he would listen.
When he died I stopped having dreams.
This will not be a story in which the death of the husband or wife becomes what amounts to the credit sequence for a new life, a catalyst for the discovery that “you can love more than one person.” Of course you can, but marriage is something different. Marriage is memory. Marriage is time.
“She didn’t know the songs,” I recall being told that a friend of a friend had said after an attempt to repeat the experience. Marriage is not only time: it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time.
I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account.
Nor do I want to finish the year.
The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place.
I look for resolution and find none.