“Sometimes Quite Funny”: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and The Relationship Between Tragedy and Comedy

I just finished reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. It’s about the year her husband died and her daughter spent in intensive care (for an illness that later took her life). On the back cover Robet Pinsky calls it “sometimes quite funny because it dares to tell the truth.” “Funny” seems like a crazy thing to call a book on such a morose and tragic topic, but I tend to agree.

I presume, actually, that Pinsky meant that it was funny because it dared to tell the truth about death, grief, and loss. But I thought it was “quite funny” in the way it told the truth about people. The way in which Joan Didion dared to tell the truth about herself and those she loved. For example, here is my favorite passage in the book:

I cleared a shelf on which John had stacked sweatshirts, T-shirts, the clothes he wore when we walked in Central Park in the early morning. We walked every morning. We did not always walk together because we liked different routes but we would keep the other’s route in mind and intersect before we left the park.

An immediate image of an older (but not elderly—still spry) couple taking their daily walk. Separately, because although the both worked from home for most of their marriage, they are fiercely committed to theirs and each other’s independence—neither wishes to impose “their walk” on the other. In Central Park, because they live in Manhattan. They are successful writers of a certain age living in an apartment in Manhattan. Of course they take daily walks. In Central Park. In the “early morning” because, despite the fact that they set their own schedules, they are committed to productivity. A daily early morning walk in Central Park clears the head, helps one gain composure, is necessary to center oneself. Central Park. The center, the literal heart of the matter. Alone. But keeping each other’s routes in mind.

It’s one of the most moving and funniest things I’ve ever read that wasn’t meant as a joke. Funny for the tossed-off way in which it reveals the entirety of a relationship. God, yes, I know these people. Of course they take daily walks in Central Park. Of course they take them “together alone”. Of course. (One of the T-shirts is a “Canyon Ranch” T-shirt, Didion parenthetically notes a few lines later. Of course it is. A perfect detail. Specificity is so key to humor.) I hope Ms. Didion would not read this account of my experience of her book and find it to be disrespectful of her experience, or flat wrong. I don’t think she would, since she is known for her piercingly truthful diction—as one friend put it to me the other night when she heard I was reading the book, “her phrases sometimes literally take my breath away.”

Laughter is a form of having one’s breath taken away. It is a moment of surprise, of acknowledgement of both the true and the ridiculous. The only difference between tragedy and comedy in this way is the outcome. Both are true and surprising and ridiculous, but in one people are hurt, are sad, they die, and in the other we all have a good laugh and probably someone gets married. In both tragedy and comedy, it’s the specificity that increases our empathy as an observer, and therefore our pleasure.

There’s another passage, early in the book, recounting the moments before Didion’s husband died:

We had discussed whether to go out for dinner or eat in. I said I would build a fire, we could eat in. I built a fire, I started dinner, I asked John if he wanted a drink. I got him a Scotch and give it to him in the living room, where he was reading in the chair by the fire where he habitually sat.

It’s beautiful, and moving…and funny. Because of course this is the same couple who took daily separate-but-keeping-each-other’s-routes-in-mind walks through Central Park. They’re a couple that goes out to dinner most nights. In one moment she remembers the summer they would go for an afternoon swim and then “out to dinner, many night’s at Morton’s. Morton’s felt right that summer.” This couple that goes for Central Park walks together-alone, that goes out to dinner most nights and when going out is not preferred, lights a fire and pours a drink, sets the table and lights the candles (would you have guessed that they lit candles even for simple nightly dinners alone? Of course you would). This couple that has some sort of sixth-sense about which high-end restaurants “feel right” to frequent based on season and mood and perhaps just an ineffable feeling in the air. A “Morton’s for dinner” feeling.

If I’m poking a little fun at these depictions, I presume, again, that Ms. Didion would indulge me. She herself seems aware of the “shared…habit of mind usually credited to the very successful.” And Didion and Dunne certainly lived a certain kind of “successful,” upper-middle class white American lifestyle, but they were also writers, and much of their early marriage, if idyllically set in Malibu or Hawaii, Didion with daisies in her hair, their daughter Quintana playing at the edge of the Pacific shore, was the life of two young (if successful) bohemians. But even in those days, you can see the order, the love of ritual, the pleasure of rhythm underlying Didion and Dunne’s partnership.

Dunne was a Catholic—of course he liked ritual. Didion speaks, toward the end of the book, of “the value {she} placed on the rituals of domestic life” and then quickly adds that “the concept of ‘wife’ should not have seemed difficult, but it did.” She speaks of having trouble getting used to her ring. Of accusing her husband early in their marriage of “want{ing} a different kind of wife.” I relate to these details, and at the intersection of where I see myself in her and where her identity becomes “other,” it is the stark, simple, unapologetic specificity of her account that engages me in her story. Rather than a story of loss in general, it is the story of one person’s loss, made more deeply felt by the reader in its depiction of what came before the loss—the mundane details of life that make us who we are in ways both novel and universal. The walk alone together through Central Park.

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