IF ANYBODY COULD HAVE been prepared for what happened to Joan Didion, it should have been Joan Didion. At 70, she is the author of five novels and seven works of nonfiction, all of which are distinguished by enormous intellectual force, an impatience with sentimentality and a general intolerance for bunk. Didion is one of the great clear thinkers and dry-eyed observers of her generation. When people talk about somebody being a tough customer, Didion is the kind of person they're talking about.
Then, on the night of Dec. 30, 2003, Didion's husband John Gregory Dunne, also a writer, suddenly slumped over at the dinner table. He had died of a massive heart attack. They had been married a month shy of 40 years. Just five days earlier, their daughter Quintana Roo Dunne Michael had been admitted to the hospital with pneumonia and septic shock; at the time of her father's death, she was in a coma.
Those events--her husband's death and her daughter's illness--are the subject of Didion's memoir The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf; 227 pages). And as it turned out, nobody, not even Joan Didion, could have been ready for them.
Didion is a tiny woman, under 5 ft. and skeletally thin. Her clothes hang on her like hand-me-downs. Ropy veins stand out on her arms and hands through her translucent skin. She answers the door to her Upper East Side Manhattan apartment with a perfunctory whispered greeting, barely raising her eyes from the floor, then immediately shuffles away again. She has the air of somebody who has reached a point in her life where she is dispensing with the unnecessaries.
She could have opted out of a book tour for The Year of Magical Thinking--she is, after all, grieving and famous--but she is very much of the show-must-go-on school. "If you're going to publish something, talking to people about it kind of comes with the territory," she says. "I didn't die. My life has to continue. I don't have an option." An orchid--Phalaenopsis, she says, and spells the word for me--stands in a glass vase on her coffee table. As we talk, Didion plucks one of its large, limp white blossoms, puts it on a small plate and gently strokes it.
Didion wrote Magical Thinking quite rapidly. She began it on Oct. 4, 2004, and finished it on Dec. 31, a year and a day after Dunne died. "I had a sense that this book wasn't written at all," she says. "I just sort of sat down and typed it. It wasn't written in the sense that I usually write things." Didion's prose is usually buffed to a high polish, but with this book she deliberately made the writing less smooth, taking out the transitions ("I was sort of crazy, so transitions really didn't figure") and waving off copy editors to keep it feeling choppy, unpolished, unmediated. "I really thought that if it was going to have any value, it had to be immediate, it had to be raw." It begins in the simplest, most documentary style possible. The first words of the book are actually just rough notes she jotted down in the wake of Dunne's death, printed verbatim.