Thursday, August 24, 2006

Simply Magical

In the opening paragraph of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, a series of italicized phrases she wrote immediately following her husband's death, leapt off the page:

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
"Pay attention," the italics said. She was teaching me how to read her book. I felt I was in good hands. I made a mental note and continued reading.

In Chapter Two, that first landmine she had planted blew. Without sentiment, while discussing how, one night at dinner, her husband John had forgotten the note cards he used to jot down things he wanted to remember, she dropped one of thoese phrases from the first chapter, You sit down to dinner. Wham! I was thrown back to the raw emotion she had expressed in the first chapter. Wham! I remembered.

Throughout the book, I counted thirty-four such plantings: phrases, bits of dialogue, quotes from literature, place names, movie names, book titles - some italicized, some not. Combined, these thirty-four items were repeated no less than one hundred and four times. In context, each one anchored me in a certain place with a certain person. When Didion exploded it on a later page in the book, my mind snapped back to the time and place which it had referenced and, mid-chapter, Wham!

In Chapter Twenty-One, a chapter made up of two half-pages, Didion nearly writes in code. On page 219, the half-page that ends the chapter, a page of fewer than 150 words, she uses five of these references. Without these having been previously planted, the phrases are meaningless. But with the frame of reference she has provided, they are fists. Wham! Wham! Wham! Wham! Wham! It nearly feels like whiplash, a lyrical, literary whiplash.

Didion's technique, whether conscious or unconscious, mirrors the way the mind moves. Mid-conversation, something a person says will trigger a memory of an event from the past. It will flash in the mind and transport the reader back to that time and place. In this book, Didion takes us along on her memory's ride. The magical nature of her thinking is disturbing, but the magical nature of her prose, delightful.

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