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“I Was No Longer Afraid to Die. I Was Now Afraid Not to Die.”

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Quintana, Dunne, and Didion in Malibu, California, 1976.  

By far the best-selling book of her nearly half-century career, The Year of Magical Thinking sold more than a million copies and made its author, for the first time, a truly public figure, even a kind of literary saint—no longer a cult favorite but a celebrity writer embraced by book clubs and heralded in airport bookstores. That success was a disorienting shock, she says—especially the crowds. “People would stop me in airports and tell me what it had done for them,” she tells me. “I had no clue; I hadn’t done anything as far as I could see.” When that happens, “I go remote on them,” she says. “I actively do not want to be a mentor. I never liked teaching, for that reason.”

Nonetheless, she got busy touring. “I promised myself that I would maintain momentum,” she writes dispassionately in Blue Nights of a mourning period she filled with distractions. She let Scott Rudin persuade her to adapt Magical Thinking into a play directed by playwright David Hare. Vanessa Redgrave was the star. Critics would complain Redgrave was far too large and strident to play Didion, who weighed less than 80 pounds. The crew set up a table backstage, which they called Café Didion, in order to make sure she ate daily.

And Didion kept working, tirelessly. There were screenplays, which she had so often written with her husband: a movie on Katharine Graham and an adaptation of her novel The Last Thing He Wanted. There were also articles for The New York Review of Books, including a takedown of Dick Cheney and a devil’s-advocate essay on the vegetative Terri Schiavo—an essay she says she wrote for reasons unrelated to Quintana’s hospital experiences.

She continued to see friends, as she still does today, a few times a week. Some of them insisted Didion take a vacation. She was in her seventies, after all, and had just lost both members of her immediate family, then wrestled with the loss in a remarkably public way. One day, during the run of the play, she came down with a very bad case of shingles. A doctor said she was making an “inadequate adjustment to aging.” She corrected him: She was making no adjustment to aging. Instead of taking a vacation, she began to think about another, more painful project.

“My intention had been to make Magical Thinking less polished, and I thought I had done that until I finished it,” Didion says. “And then I realized that it was exactly as polished as everything I wrote had always been.”

She set out to try something rougher—though not quite as rough, she says, as the book she ultimately published. “I was going to make it more theoretical than it turned out to be, less specifically about Quintana,” she says. “It was going to be much less personal.” Instead, she wrote the most personal, wrenching book of her life. Magical Thinking, not exactly a breezy piece of work, “simply wrote itself,” she says. “This did not write itself.”

Didion has always been known for the crystal sheen of her writing—as a child she retyped pages from A Farewell to Arms—and the seeming casualness of her prose has long divided readers. The critic John Lahr once condemned Didion for suffusing her writing with nothing more than her own anomie, which he memorably called “the Brentwood Blues. She meditates on her desolation and makes it elegant,” he wrote. “Sent to get the pulse of a people, Didion ends up taking her own temperature. Narcissism is the side show of conservatism.”

And yet Didion owes her stature to more than solipsistic style. She’s also a soothsayer, always timely and often prescient. By virtue of her age—just ahead of the baby-boomers, young enough to recognize them and old enough to see them clearly—Didion has made a career as a canary in the American coal mine. In the sixties, she observed, from the vital center, the dangers of the counterculture, and long before Woodstock. Beginning in the nineties, she anticipated the shallow polarization that now dominates American politics. In the aughts, just in advance of aging contemporaries like Joyce Carol Oates, she anatomized the pain of widowhood. And, in Blue Nights, she warns against the false comforts of helicopter parenting and industrial medicine.

In each case, she makes the story her own—slyly conflating private malaise and social upheaval, a signature technique that has launched a thousand personal essayists. But sometimes it’s difficult to tell which of her confessions are genuine and which calculated for literary effect, how much to trust her observations as objective and how much to interrogate them as stylistic quirks. Her clinical brand of revelation can sometimes feel like an evasion—as likely to lead the reader away from hard truths as toward them.


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