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Joan Didion: Keenly seeing the common

| Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Emma Kirner | The Observer

Literary legend Joan Didion passed away shortly before last Christmas at the age of 87.

As a prolific writer and one of the pioneers of the New Journalism literary movement, she was dubbed “one of the most original voices in modern American literature.” She leaves behind a large canon of work varying from genre-bending fiction and nonfiction to original screenplays. 

Throughout her career, Didion aimed to write history as it was happening. Her extensive work as a journalist led her to document the American experience, from 1970s hippie counterculture to the corruption of justice. As she gained more experience as a writer, she found the courage to report on the events of her own life, mainly regarding bouts of illness and grief over family members. The unwavering first-person subjectivity in her work — her clear perspective — unites both the public and personal aspects of her literature. 

The legacy Didion leaves behind is arguably her most popular and profitable work: “The Year of Magical Thinking”. Its appeal to a mass-market audience was due to its subject matter: grief. Didion’s remarkable ability to write from a detached perspective made her personal experiences applicable to the public and made common, public experiences applicable to her own. This unique blend of memoir and investigative journalism helped the book to win the National Book Award for Nonfiction, as well as consideration for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. 

“Magical Thinking” is considered one of the best books on grief, but it happens to be one of the only novels to document the loss of a spouse rather than a parent. Didion herself describes this significant difference in “Magical Thinking”: Losing her parents was “distanced, at a remove from the ongoing dailiness of my life,” but losing her husband, John Dunne, “had no distance … [It] comes in waves, paroxysms, such apprehensions that weaken the knees.” In describing her loss of Dunne, one gets the impression of a phantom limb — something that was once a part of her and is now startlingly absent. 

Didion was unknowingly gearing up her whole career to write “Magical Thinking.” Only an experienced author could delicately walk the line between the novel’s cool and detached writing style and its raw, intimate emotions. Even then, it’s something only Didion pulls off successfully. The repressed prose counterintuitively amplifies the emotional undercurrent of the piece.

While Didion’s techniques are relentless with emotional intensity, they only serve to clarify her message. Her refrains and cadences amplify the waves of grief she experiences. Her fragmentary paragraphing shows how grief fragments her thoughts and splits her brain. Her haunting rhetorical questions — questions addressed to Dunne, questions he can no longer hear, questions he will no longer answer — make Didion’s loss tangibly felt. Readers of “Magical Thinking” are supposed to feel what Didion feels. It documents grief in all its cruelty.

After Dunne’s death, Didion found solace in an old manners handbook. She writes: “Mrs. Post would have understood that. She wrote in a world in which mourning was still recognized, allowed, not hidden from view.” In writing, Didion created a world that mourns — recognizably, permissibly and publicly. She removes the shroud surrounding death, even though it may be hard to stomach. Didion writes about how lonely and isolating grief is. In doing so, she creates a chance for connection and solidarity. 

Undoubtedly, Didion will be remembered for her keen insights into common experiences. What keeps her legacy alive is her love. In immortalizing her husband and daughter through literature, Didion succeeds in immortalizing herself. In works of grief, she finds life. 

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About Claire Lyons

Claire is a sophomore from Fort Worth, TX studying Political Science and English. She loves Sufjan Stevens, sad indie movies and the Art Institute of Chicago.

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