I don't know why I've been so captivated with Joan Didion's recent book, "The Year of Magical Thinking," (I've posted here on it before, and here). I read the New York Times Magazine piece on it, and the excerpt from it, but I've yet to buy it, thinking, "Oh I'm young, and why do I want to think about death right now?"
And yet I keep circling back to it, like something is drawing me. I just couldn't make sense of it, but it felt like Didion's experience was a kind of deja vu, but for a life I've never lived, a past life maybe.
It just rang too familiar, and the familiarity doesn't begin with the book for me. It started when I found myself writing the obit ticker item on CNN Headline News when her husband, John Gregory Dunne passed away.
It was one of those days of relatively slow news, and story selection was pretty much up to me. Another ticker writer might have never put that particular obit on the air, but that was the peculiar aura of my tickers. I always tried to include stories outside that broadly conceived but often narrowly-executed perception of the lowest common denominator television audience. And, by that time, of course there was no way I would leave the obit of Joan Didion's husband out of the rotation. Unlike, say, Ted Williams's passing, it wasn't breaking news, but it was worthy of note, even if well over half the folks in the newsroom had never heard of either Didion or Dunne.
As I've written here before, at the time I felt a twinge of sadness for her, but I had no idea how symbiotic their relationship was. It spurred an odd interest I couldn't explain, until I suddenly discovered Dunne's books, which just happened to be on a topic I was researching at that time. So I read them, which again is neither here nor there. It was just research. I didn't glean anything pithy or amazing from them, as I have from the experience of reading some of Didion's essays.
And I currently have no life partner, so my interest is not born of a commonality, not that I would long for a relationship quite that symbiotic anyway. It would probably make me a bit bonkers, but for what I learned from the Charlie Rose interview with Didion tonight.
I joined the Charlie Rose show after it started, so I only gleaned this from the conversation, but I believe he was a friend of the family, or at least of Dunne. As came out in the interview, Didion had come to depend on Dunne to be a buffer between herself and the outside world, while Dunne was far more socially interactive on a daily basis.
Whether Rose knew the family well or not, he at least knew them as folks around New York City in the circles people who are well-known or literary move. Perhaps that accounts for the sensitivity of the remarkable interview. Rose handled every question and leading suggestion in exactly the right way, and drew Didion out with a slow progression of increasingly probing questions. The pace was exactly right on.
And why do we want to know the answers to these probing questions, why do we want to elucidate aspects that Didion develops in the book? The answer to that question is as quiet and crucial as the interview itself, which proved by its process how important the answers to the questions were, how important (I have come to believe) the book is. I think Rose said it is nominated for a National Book Award, and that with only being out a short time.
A memoir by a famous person of the life, death, and grieving process for a much-beloved partner is not in itself remarkable. Didion's perspective is perhaps more remarkable as she puts that all in the frame of "magical thinking," the delusions a normally rational person is quite happy to live with as a secret reality after such a loss. Like being unable to get rid of Dunne's shoes, because he'd need them when he came back, and so on.
But there is a larger subject to this book, something bigger to discover about ourselves than just pop psych reminiscences. It's about something abstract and maybe unnamed that flows around and through interactions when there is no subterfuge, no walls, few white lies or false fronts. Maybe it is intimacy taken to the -nth degree, and that might freak me out a bit if I had to live with it, but it was a relationship they both cherished even if they were joined at the hip. At least it approaches these things postmodernists belittle as non-existent: integrity and authenticity, and for that at least, I am envious.
It tries to pin down something that only becomes possible to name and identify by its absence. That is the thing that's the elusive real subject of Didion's book. Death and grief only give the occasion to note and identify it.
I know, I should just shut up and go read the book, and I will. I just couldn't help but be moved by this interview as well, an interview that could only have happened with the kind of trust Didion must have had for Rose. But I couldn't for the life of me tell you why I'm drawn to an experience that really touches no direct common note in my own life, except maybe that I've also experienced loss, or as Emily Dickinson says, "I've waded grief, whole pools of it." Maybe that's enough.