Charles Petzold

“The Year of Magical Thinking”

March 22, 2007
New York, N.Y.

Last October, the New York Review of Books published a long article by Joan Didion that surveyed 16 books offering various degrees of insights into the Vice Presidency of Dick Cheney. It was great to see Didion back in the pages of NYRB wrestling with a long unwieldy topic that was not quite so personal.

Joan Didion's marriage to John Gregory Dunne was the stuff of literary legend. They spent nearly all their time with each other, they edited each other's books and articles, and they collaborated on movie scripts. On December 30, 2003, almost 40 years after they had been married and 15 years after John Gregory Dunne had been diagnosed with a heart condition his cardiologist charmingly referred to as the "widow-maker," he collapsed at the dining room table, dead of a heart attack.

Didion didn't write anything for 9 months after her husband's death, and when she started writing again in October 2004, it became a marvelous little memoir entitled The Year of Magical Thinking published a year after she began it. The “magical thinking” referred to in the title is a term used in anthropology and psychology describing how people believe their actions can affect future events despite any theory or evidence of causation. Although Didion knew rationally that her husband had died and was never coming back, at the same time she went a little crazy and constantly speculated about reversing the process, "fixing" it, or preventing it from happening. She finds that she can't get rid of her husband's shoes, for example, because there would be nothing for him to wear on his return, and she strains to avoid memory "vortices" that reveal the stark contrast between the past and present.

Most of all, Didion wants to discuss what she's going through with the only person who knows her well enough to understand, but that's precisely the person who's now missing. With time, Dunne's presence begins to fade from Didion's life. At one point, she looks up a word in a dictionary that was always left open at Dunne's desk and she realizes that the last word he looked up in that dictionary was now forever lost.

What makes the process of mourning more difficult for Didion is the illness of their only child, Quintana, who was in her late 30's and who had just been married a few months when a flu led to pneumonia and then a full-body infection. Quintana had been in intensive care for 5 days before Dunne died, and throughout the book Quintana is in and out of hospitals in both New York City and California. What the reader of the book knows is that Quintana died in August 2005; The Year of Magical Thinking had been finished at that point but not yet been published, and Joan Didion decided not to revise the book to include this event.

I expected the one-person play based on The Year of Magical Thinking (which Deirdre and I saw in previews last night) to be basically an abridged version of the book. But Didion reworked the material to fashion it into a play, and supplemented it as well. The play calls for the actress playing Joan Didion to speak directly to the audience, and from a lengthier perspective of time to include the death of Quintana.

The play is directed by David Hare and stars Vanessa Redgrave, who obviously looks nothing like Joan Didion. Didion is small and Redgrave is tall, and she makes no attempt to even restyle her hair a bit to match Didion's bangs. Rather than imitating Joan Didion, Redgrave is playing a character named Joan Didion, who is recounting episodes in a life of family, travel, and writing, bracketed by two devastating deaths. The play works well, I think. The material is certainly compelling enough to support a 95-minute one-person performance, and Redgrave gives the narrative a strong steady calm, only rarely punctuated with outbursts of anger.