Towards the end of last year I finally started Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. The book had been on my shelf for a long time, bought off Amazon, no doubt, shortly after I saw Vanessa Redgrave play Didion in the one-woman stage play based on the book. I had two tickets to see the play at the Bath Theatre Royal. It must have been 2008. I’d bought the tickets with a theatre voucher – a birthday present from my best friend. It was a big deal as my then boyfriend didn’t do plays and this was my friend’s attempt to make sure he did. Anyway, coming into Bath the traffic was terrible and in the end I had to get out the car mid-jam to get to the theatre in time. By the time the boyfriend got to the theatre the ushers wouldn’t let him into the play and, although it was awkward afterwards, I was glad. One woman on stage. One woman in the stalls (or so it felt).
The book, I think I was saving for the right moment and that moment came last November when my mum fell very ill. For those who don’t know it, The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s account of the year following her husband’s death – a year in which her daughter suffered a long, mysterious illness. Didion herself describes the book best:
"This is my attempt to make sense of the… weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness… about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself."
My dad was charmed by the title of this new book lying around, likely thinking it some sort of fairy story. And though I knew the book to be otherwise, I had picked it up out of an act of magical thinking, which does rely on fairies of some sort to get a job done. Yet for all the instances of magical thinking recorded in the book – such as Didion deciding she must stay home alone the night after her husband’s death in order that he could come back – the writing itself is scrupulously spare, rational and sane. Didion’s only conspicuous literary tic is stating some choice words and phrases twice. The repetition can get annoying, but perhaps it demonstrates Didion’s desire to get to the crux of things; to hear things ring true, over again.
I was still reading the book in January when Didion appeared in a Céline ad. Here was magic – the kind I half expect when I’m really into a book; a magic that aligns my reading with something significant; a magic that, like magical thinking, flatters the power of the ego. For fairies, read self.
So it was for my attention that Didion turned up in a campaign of probably the most influential fashion house in the world. Just as when I found myself in the theatre alone, once again Didion, diminutive in stature, loomed large, seeping into my life as if to tell me something, or to serve some other purpose.
The truth, of course, is otherwise. Yet the book, weeks finished, still moves between rooms in my house, lest in returning Didion to the shelf she vanishes. Gradually, with the book still in sight and mind, I began to draw comparisons between Didion’s writing and sartorial styles: plain, defiantly pared-back, undistracted by that put there to distract us. I started thinking about her references to clothing and what they meant. I thought I’d write about that, after which I could put the book away, a purpose served.
But the internet served a stark reminder of my airy-fairyness – certainly of my snail’s pace. It wasn’t until I sat down to write the piece that I googled ‘Joan Didion Celine’. Every female journalist, it seems, had long ago commented on the subject. Of course they had. In an article for The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance had even written the very piece I set out to write, doing a brilliantly thorough job, concluding that Didion’s individual and writerly styles are inextricable. She says, too, that Didion’s references to clothing highlight what has changed – what has been lost. Read it. I can add nothing to it but to point out that when Didion found her sandals catching on the sidewalk, threatening her to trip, she “bought two pairs of Puma sneakers and wore them exclusively”. Perhaps it’s time I did the same.
Pictured left, The Year of Magical Thinking. Right, Joan Didion photographed for Céline by Juergen Teller.
Words by Caroline Davidson.