The Year of Magical Thinking

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Why We Need Memoirs

1.
I’ve been a practicing psychologist for more than 40 years and an experience I had recently with a client gave me some insight about memoirs, maybe not about why I chose to write one, but about the value of that kind of project. A kind of retrospective view.

My client had somehow come across my book, read it, and had some questions and thoughts. His first statement to me was, “I thought you were evolved.” I know it can be tempting to see one’s therapist as a person who has arrived, spiked the ball, and done the victory dance. The structure of the relationship kind of supports that falsehood. So I was very happy to disabuse my client of that misimpression, telling him that I believe we are all flawed, all mucking around, doing the best we can; that there is no “evolved,” but that I hoped to be evolving. (Sidebar: A good book to read on this topic is the oldie but goodie When You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him.)

The next thing my client said was that he didn’t think my story merited a full-length book. You can be the judge if you end up reading it, but I knew in that moment—and after the time I’d spent working with him—that my client’s lack of empathy for my history had little to do with me and much more to do with the very significant challenges he faced as a child. When I presented that observation to him, he cried for the first time in his eight decades about the pain of childhood. I think my book humanized me in his eyes. I think it might have been easier for him to own his pain because I was owning mine. Memoirs can do that: remind us that we are all flawed and complicated, all doing the best we can, none of us free from suffering.

2.
I’m not sure I can articulate or even remember the reasons why I chose to write my memoir, what my initial motivation was. I don’t think I fully understood my desire to tell my story. Over the years, I’d read articles and books that try to answer the why-should-you-write-a-memoir question. Not one of them says: It’s because you are a special and unique snowflake and the world is holding its breath and waiting for you to tell your story. Of course, we’re all unique, and each of us has a story to tell. But I’m pretty sure no one wants to read a memoir written by an author motivated primarily by self-importance. The same goes for authors writing to impress readers with the severity of their woe-is-me narratives.

3.
Another subcategory of the genre is the memoir-as-personal-catharsis, i.e. writing as a therapeutic experience. I’m in favor of journaling; in fact it’s something I often recommend to clients. But writing a memoir as a means of screaming into a pillow or crying on a therapists couch? Maybe. But I have a bone to pick with that sort of memoir. My old writing teacher always stressed the importance of fully digesting material—events from one’s life, painful experiences, etc.—in order to acquire the necessary distance to tell a good story: one that has broad appeal rather than one that reads like a diary entry. I was almost 70 when I started writing my memoir. I’d had tons of therapy, had thought about and worked on and turned over the issues from my childhood. I did not set out to write my book as a form of personal therapy. Rather, I wanted to write what I had learned after all that work. But, a strange thing happened when I finished writing. I learned new things about myself; I saw my experience in a different way; I was changed. Sounds like therapy to me. But I think there is an important distinction to be made between writing as a therapeutic undertaking and discovering that the writing process has been therapeutic once you’ve finished.

4.
To me, memoirs that are brave, that reveal our vulnerabilities and deepest humanity are instruments of public service. I come at that from both the personal and the societal viewpoint. If someone does the hard work of examining her experiences and, in the end, grows as a person, that’s a spectacular result. And as people evolve and grow, they are more likely to engage with the world in an enriching way. Really, the only way for societies to evolve is for its individual members to grow. Individual change has a societal ripple.

So, why do we need memoir? In this world, and in our country—where so many of us feel a lack of connection, where the challenges seem so large—writers who dare to tell the brutal, honest truth about their humanity offer us a gift. When I read Elie Wiesel’s Night, I feel despair and rage. When I read The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, I feel admiration and kinship. When I read Darkness VisibleDarkness Visible by William Styron, I feel sorrow. When I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, I feel seen. When I read these books, I feel my inner experience reflected back to me. They remind me that we are all part of the human family. They echo the heartache, love, grief, despair, shame, longing, ambition, joy that we all experience. They remind us that we are more alike than different. They make us feel less alone.

Image credit: Unsplash/Cathy Mü.

I Was Formed by What I Didn’t Know: The Millions Interviews Dani Shapiro

In the spring of 2016, Dani Shapiro received one of the biggest shocks of her life when she learned, through an Ancestry.com DNA test, that she and her adored, deceased father were not biologically related. She had taken the test on a whim and wasn’t expecting to discover anything new. In fact, she thought she had pretty well excavated her family history in two of her previous memoirs: Slow Motion and Devotion. But the results of the test forced her to revisit mysteries she thought she had put to rest:
There had always been something more—something I could never quite fathom. An invisible live wire stretched between my parents and me. Touch it, and we might up in smoke. I knew this, too, thought I couldn’t have articulated it. I had turned away from fiction, toward memoir, as if a trail of words might lead me there.

Inheritance, her latest memoir, is the remarkable story of how, with just a few clues, Shapiro discovers both that she was donor-conceived, and the identity of her donor. With her mother also deceased, there are many unanswered questions, and Shapiro finds herself delving into the early history of sperm donation, and interviewing the remaining friends and acquaintances of her parents. But she’s most powerful when she writes about the strange memories that have never left her, memories imprinted with a mystery she couldn’t recover.

After reading Inheritance, I was very curious about how she went about writing this story, which is so different from her recent memoirs, but at the same time, speaks directly to them. I spoke to her over the phone last week, and as in her book about writing, Still Writing, she was very good at describing the different stages of her writing process. Our interview has been condensed slightly and edited for clarity.

The Millions: When did you know you would write about this experience?

Dani Shapiro: Very, very quickly. I’m a writer who has mined my own life and attempted to shape my experience into stories for my entire writing life. And then this massive wrecking ball of a story came into my life. I can’t even say it’s a story; it’s a revelation about what has always been true. It never occurred to me not to write about it. Somebody actually wrote to me on social media today—how do you think you would have written about this story if your parents were still alive? I wrote back, that’s a big question, and I’m not going to start responding to it on social media, but the fact that my parents were gone, and I was left with this massive mystery, and the only way I’ve come to understand anything about myself or about life is by writing about it, by following the line of words. And so I began jotting down notes very early on. Just fragments. Part of it was that I thought I wouldn’t remember the very early feelings and thoughts because I was in such shock. And the other reason was because I was aware that anything I might learn about the truth of my origins and the culture and the time and place that made me, those people who might know something about that, were very old if they were still living. I felt this urgency to put my reporter’s hat on and learn as much as I possibly could. I did not have the luxury of thinking, I’m going to write about this five years from now, after I’ve processed it. And, also, some books require distance, but this one felt like it required immediacy.

TM: It’s interesting that you realized right away that the clock was ticking in terms of the research you could do, and the interviews you could do.

DS: I think I would have felt that way whether I was writing the book or not. Writing a book sometimes gives you the excuse, the permission to pick up the phone and call people. I’ve always felt that way, whenever I’ve done a journalistic piece—a personal history piece—it’s always been spurred by what I really want to know but I don’t have permission ask. And if I have an assignment, then I have permission. So, there was something of that.

TM: When I was reading it, I thought it was so lucky that you are a writer—and also you had a journalist husband who could help you with your research. I just felt you had a good way of processing it, but I wondered if you felt that way, too?

DS: Initially I was just in it. I was in the fog of it; I was just doing anything I could, whatever I could. I felt that my emotional future well-being required that I at least try to turn over every stone that I could. I didn’t know what I would discover. But one of the things I figured out very quickly is that, if you have to find out that you’re donor-conceived, I had a miraculously good story. I had almost eerily so, just enough clues. My mother had once let slip, just in one brief conversation with her, certain vital clues: the word “Philadelphia,” the word “Institute.”

And then, let’s start with the fact that I did the DNA test at all. Because I easily could never had done that. It was a very random thing to decide to do, and it was only because my husband was doing it, and the prices have come down, so I thought, Sure, why not? It was so casual, and then the incredibly fast time that it took from the moment that I realized that my dad hadn’t been my biological father to finding my biological father. It was crazy, it was 36 hours, it was a domino effect, one thing leading to another, and a kind of hypothesis, and a couple of clues, and a couple of educated guesses, and the fact that my first cousin was on my page on Ancestry.com, and the fact that we could figure out who he was. It wasn’t hard. There was a certain amount of journalistic chops that were required; I think when my husband figured out that the name associated with my first cousin wasn’t first name-last name, but last name-first name, that’s the kind of thing that maybe somebody who is not an investigative journalist might not have gotten to as quickly, but it did happen in this way that, when I look back on it now, was miraculous.

I’ve heard a lot of stories now of dead ends, of donors who don’t want to be disturbed, or who don’t come around, and don’t respond. I just recently heard a story of a woman who is nearly 80 who just found out that her father had not been her biological father. What do you do with that when you’re 80 years old? I feel like the when in my life when I found out, was probably when I had the most stability, the most time and space, to actually be able to truly, deeply go on this journey. I wasn’t too young and I wasn’t too old. I write about this in the book, but when I was told about donor-conceived people who tattoo their donor numbers on their body, I get that. I had 36 hours, which is nothing, of feeling like I may never know who my biological father was. It felt like I was walking with a void underneath me. Like I had been uprooted—the roots that I thought that I had were no longer my roots. I might never know the facts of my identity.

TM: Did you know the structure of the book right away? And did the writing of this book feel different from writing previous memoirs?

DS: I started writing right away and I thought that I was writing the book. It’s funny, because I’ve taught writing for many years, and I’ve written a book about writing, and every once in a while I come up against something where I think, I know I would tell a student that this is impossible, but it’s not going to be impossible for me…

I learned something important to writers, regarding writing from experience. I have written directly from experience before. In my memoir Devotion, and in Hourglass, those are both books written like the present is a laboratory, and writing from the center of experience, but what was totally different about embarking on writing Inheritance was that those earlier books were not being written from a place of trauma. In initially trying to get what was happening to me down on the page, I was writing from the center of trauma. There’s that moment in my book when I quote from Bessel van der Kolk’s—I don’t have the quote exactly right, but it’s something like, “It’s the nature of trauma that doesn’t allow a story to be told.” It’s the reason why people who are in a traumatic state repeat themselves, and need to keep telling the same story over and over again. But that does not make for good literature—although I want to interject and say that I do think there is one literary form in which you can write directly out of trauma, and it’s poetry.

I wrote 200 pages of a draft. And I was already under contract and I was feeling actually pretty good about what I had on the page at that point. But then I had to go on tour for Hourglass. And I went on the road and I had to go on this mode of really not thinking about it, because I couldn’t think about it and be talking about Hourglass, which was a book that I felt so proud of, and wanted to be promoting. So I was on the road, and I think it must have been about two months that I didn’t touch the manuscript. And I sort of settled in, and I took myself to a local café where I like to read, and I started reread and my heart just completely sank. It had some passages that worked, but as a whole, it simply was not the book I wanted to write. And I was in despair. I went home and told my husband, I know that this is productive despair, I would tell any writer telling me this story that it is productive, and that this is going to end up being a good thing, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like despair with a capital D.

And then I went back and I reread The Year of Magical Thinking. Because my editor and I had spoken about The Year of Magical Thinking before I had even started writing. She brought up that book as something that had within it a sense of immediacy. And yet at the same time, a powerful coolness to it because that’s what Didion does. In my memory of the book, she was writing from the center of her husband’s death. But when I started rereading it, I realized she actually found a place that is slightly removed from, that was outside the sphere of direct shock and trauma. She was writing from that spot, which allowed her to move back into the immediacy but also away from it in a way that allowed her to tell a story. And so I understood that I hadn’t known what that was. So I spent a couple of months exploring what that place was from which to tell the story, that was on the one hand still unfolding. But the actual breathless 36 hours of that story was very much in the rear view mirror for me when I sat down in earnest and was writing.

My job as a writer was twofold. One was the opposite of what writers need to do—I had to really slow it down. It’s a runaway train of a story, and I had to really think about how to give it the ballast and the weight that it required. The other way that it was different was that I was aware of the outsized details, the sheer strangeness of the story itself, and the uniqueness of it. I mean, I know it’s happened to a lot of people, but most people haven’t experienced it. Yet I wanted to write a book that people would be able to read and find for themselves what’s universal in it. In my memoir Slow Motion for example, my parents had been in a car accident. Even if your own parents haven’t been in a car accident anyone can emphasize and imagine what the person might feel like.

When I’ve written a couple of times about my son when he was little and he was sick, anyone, whether they’re a mother or a father, can put themselves in the shoes of this person telling the story. And I was aware that discovering in midlife that my father was not my biological father, I was going to have to a) help the reader understand what that feels like and b) write a book that took those experiences and took the strange, later-in-life journey that I found myself on, and really made meaning about what is this teaching me about human nature, about personhood, about identity, about family, about love, about what makes a family, about what makes a father, about nature and nurture, about all these huge ideas that I was suddenly grappling with on a deeper level than most people ever have to, and certainly than I had ever done before.

TM: The experience you describe of being able to see your biological father online, giving a video presentation, was just so stunning—I mean, the fact that we are even able to do that, first of all, but also the way you could recognize him. It just must have been so bizarre. You did a great job of describing it, I felt like I experienced it, and it made me think about how we look like our relatives, how my children look like my grandparents, or whomever, and I take it for granted, I don’t really think about it.

DS: Yes—or, if you know that you’re not biologically related to your parents, or one parent, then you know that and that also becomes part of your identity. And that’s a point that I find that I need to make, because it’s not an obvious one. People who are adopted or people who are donor-conceived, who have always known this, or parents who have donor-conceived kids, or adopted kids, who have always disclosed to their children their origins, that is a completely different story from mine, or from the many people these days who are discovering that a secret was kept from them. If you grow up knowing that you don’t know something, then that lack of knowledge becomes part of your identity. But if you grow up believing something that isn’t the case, and something about it just doesn’t make sense—that was the story of my life, and I think it’s actually the reason for all those memoirs.

TM: I actually had the same thought while I was reading. I found myself wondering if you would continue to write memoirs after this?

DS: I very much doubt that I will ever write a straightforward memoir ever again. Hopefully I’ll write fiction and I’ll write nonfiction. I was moving in a direction before I wrote Inheritance that was kind of a more fractured narrative, and away from traditional narrative, which is hilarious to me and ironic because then I had this story land on me, that was like a story with a capital S that could only be written in a straightforward, linear way. I hadn’t written in a linear fashion in a decade or more. So I have no idea what’s next for me, but I really do believe that my writing life has been formed by not knowing and always searching for what I did not know. There are clues all over all of my books. There are clues in my first novel, there are clues in my second novel, there are clues in Slow Motion, there are clues in Still Writing, and there are certainly clues in Devotion; there are clues in all my books except perhaps for Hourglass, which is really a book that is about marriage and time and memory and kind of steered clear of some of my other obsessions, but I was formed by what I didn’t know.

TM: I think Inheritance is also, in a way, a book about writing. Because you write about looking back on your old books—on what you’ve written before—and I also appreciated the amount of textual analysis you applied to the emails from people, and to what people say to you, and what you said to yourself.

DS: I love that, you’re the first person who has said that to me, and I was aware that I was parsing Ben’s emails—he used this word or he made this Freudian slip—and parsing the language that was used at the time of my conception. The word “treatment,” the word “boost.” And all the ways in which euphemism was used, to create a cloud of unknowing, that parents could find themselves wandering in a fog for the rest of their lives about what they had done—if they wanted to, they could do that. And also, I really do feel like everything I’ve written has led to this. My husband, early on, I think he felt bad that I had made this discovery, and it was his fault because he had asked me if I wanted to do the DNA test, but I have never had a moment—not even at my most destabilized—of feeling like I haven’t known. Because my life, in particular, as somebody who has been relentlessly exploring identity, my dad, my relationship with my dad.

It’s taught me a lot about stories and the narratives that we tell ourselves—all of us, not just writers. It’s how we all understand ourselves through storytelling. My narrative about both of my parents had to be reconsidered in light of this new information. I have a shelf of books that supply reasons for why they were the way they were and all of that is still true, but it’s not the whole truth. I was missing the biggest bone. The part that puts it all into complete dimensionality had eluded me until I made that discovery. And then it made everything make profound sense. Almost instantly. It didn’t make it less painful. It was very hard to digest. But I knew absolutely that I was looking at the truth and I had never seen the truth in my life.

TM: One last question—I was wondering if you have read Proust?

DS: I have read Proust, I have taught Proust—why do ask?

TM: I felt like the theories of memories you write about are similar to the ones in In Search of Lost Time, especially the idea that the memories that survive childhood, the deep ones, are the ones that have the truth in them and you have to kind of deep dive to find them.

DS: And to return to them. Why did that conversation with Mrs. Kushner stay with me my whole life? Because I don’t have a good memory of my childhood, but that—I can tell you what the leaves on the tree looked like, and the glasses of iced tea, and what Mrs. Kushner looked like. It was seared into my memory. And that was also true of the conversation I had at Sarah Lawrence with my mother, and on the car ride home. And what’s Proustian about all that is that we don’t know that those moments are becoming recorded in a way, but they are, because somewhere within us there is this very subtle recognition of their importance.

When I taught In Search of Lost Time it was in a graduate writing program at The New School, and I was teaching the literature of autobiography. I made my own syllabus, and I chose books that I wanted to reread. I think I taught that class for 10 years. And I would end every year with Proust. What was drawing me again and again to thinking, to the way he thought about memory? That’s part of what I mean by it all led to this. My friend Hannah Tinti, who is one of the people that I told pretty early on, she had one of the best reactions: She burst out laughing, first of all—laughing at the incredulity, and also like, of course. She wrote to me the next morning and said I had been in training for this my whole life. And I thought, what is it to be in training for something my whole life and have it happen? Or was I in training because of it? It haunts me that I could have possibly have never known this, because I would have missed my mark.

How P.D. James and Detective Fiction Healed My Broken Heart

My beloved father died suddenly almost five years ago. As it is for everyone who loses someone they love, my family and I found ourselves devastated. Adding to the shock of our loss was the guilt-ridden fact that my mother had not been there with my father during his final days to potentially catch the signs of his rapidly declining heart — she’d been with me, helping to manage my three young children while my husband was on a business trip.

Afterwards, the balanced weights of grief and regret settled on my shoulders, refusing to let go. Breathing was difficult. Prayer left me more drained as I grappled with my anger at losing our family patriarch so early in his life, at the age of 59 and only the beginning of his grandfatherhood, and my shame at the role my own selfishness played. Mothering and remaining a partner to my husband felt like playacting, as I tried to be brave in the face of my shattered grasp on what my life now was. To state perhaps the obvious, I’d never known life without my father.

Words have always been a place of solace for me, but during that turbulent time my own writing became splintered, as though I couldn’t hold a full thought inside my mind (which, clinically speaking, is exactly what grief does to our cognitions). A fog seeped into my neural connections, and consequently my interactions with the world became murky and indistinct. Unable to rely upon my own narrative, I sought out the stories of others who’d been submerged by grief, only to eventually surface for air and write about it.  By a few months in, I’d completed what seems to have become required reading for the recently bereaved, gobbling up Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story in hungry waves of reading at night when I couldn’t sleep. But, despite the compassion and empathy offered by these authors, I remained adrift as a woman, a daughter, and a reader. I wanted someone to tell me how to do it; how to live life without my father as an anchor. To my own surprise, I would not find my resilience in memoir, but in a fictional detective.

I discovered P.D. James at my local library, her series of mysteries impressively commanding an entire shelf all for themselves. I had planned to search the library’s database, quite literally, for “Widow Stories.” Despite the fact that I was not a widow, these were the primary books that seemed available to me as I grieved. It was as I wandered the aisles looking for an open kiosk to conduct my search that I noticed James’s work. I’d never read detective fiction before — it being a genre I had often (although I’m ashamed to admit it now) maligned as kitschy or formulaic. Despite this bias, I skeptically selected The Lighthouse from the shelf of offerings, as much out of desperation as curiosity.

I’ve always been an evening reader, and this pattern was set even more strictly during the months after my father’s death. The waning hours of winter daylight were when my anxious bereavement became the most acute, but as I pored through The Lighthouse over the next several nights, Commander Adam Dalgliesh’s controlled approach to the passions of life became a beacon to me. I found comfort in his cool-headedness as he faced the greatest cruelties human connection could muster. Here was a character who clearly felt deeply, penning acclaimed poetry in his spare time, but who also managed to subvert his ardency into a more functional rationality. Dalgliesh became a model for me of how to manage the pain of life’s losses without losing myself.

In The Lighthouse, one of the reader’s first encounters with Dalgliesh, and subsequently my introduction to the detective himself, finds the policeman-poet examining the body of a strangulation victim. P.D. James offers the reader a glimpse behind the detective’s eyes as she details the assessments Dalgliesh makes of the body and the crime scene. The victim’s height and physical features are precisely noted. His clothing is assessed with an intense scrutiny and the furniture in the room examined for clues to the inner workings of the victim. The entire scene is rational, logical, and emotionally tepid. And then, James offers a peek at the vibrant pulse below Dalgliesh’s detached demeanor:
The enclosing sheet seemed to have softened, defining rather than obliterating the sharp point of the nose and the bones of the quiescent arms. And now, thought Dalgliesh, the room will take possession of the dead. It seemed to him as it always did, that the air was imbued with the finality and the mystery of death; the patterned wallpaper, the carefully positioned chairs, the Regency desk, all mocking with their normality and permanence the transience of human life.
When I first read that passage, I was physically struck by the brutal truth of Dalgliesh’s observation. James’s words conjured the painful memory of returning home from the hospital to find the food my father had filled the refrigerator with just a day or so before his death. Milk, potato salad, his favorite cheese packaged from the deli, a few slices taken out. It was a chocolate cake with white frosting, one slice missing, that made me stifle a primal howl that night. The cake sat unassumingly on the middle shelf, but all I could picture was my father cutting himself a piece to enjoy as he sat alone in the house, waiting for his wife to come home. My mother and I promptly cleared out the fridge, both of us too ravaged by grief and guilt to care about the waste. James, through Dalgliesh, helped me to acknowledge, and even accept, that rawness would now lurk underneath the normalcy of life.

Following those observations of Dalgliesh’s in The Lighthouse, the reader sees him immediately shift back into a state of practiced analysis and get on with his job of solving the murder. It is made clear to the reader that Dalgliesh feels a great deal — he simply refuses to allow those feelings to inhibit his capacity to do his duty. If ever there was a lesson for the recently bereaved, I felt that was it: You can feel everything, but life must move forward. You are needed.

I won’t argue with those who say Dalgliesh represents a character who manages life by intellectualizing the emotional and, consequently, repressing actual feeling. I fully agree with that interpretation. When I discovered James and Dalgliesh, my emotional life was threatening to swallow me whole. Too anxious to sleep, my mental faculties drained from the ticker-tape thoughts of “Why didn’t I just hire a babysitter?” and “Why didn’t we make him go to the doctor?”, and my maternal routine involving a daily dose of chastising my children for what I perceived as their easy recuperation from their own loss of their grandfather, I had lost my balance. Reading The Lighthouse, followed by The Murder Room and A Certain Justice, Dalgliesh’s compartmentalized reactions to murder and treachery were the balm I so desperately needed.

I want to emphasize that the comfort I derived from James’s writing was not due to any “coziness” embedded in her mysteries. As noted in Val McDermid’s foreword to James’s recent short story collection published posthumously, The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, “she was anything but cosy…She understands that murder is nasty and brutal, that it is fueled by the most malevolent of motives, and she’s not afraid to face that darkness head-on.” Rather, it was James’s frank handling of the brutalities of life that spoke to me. Losing my father was a childhood terror made real, but much like Dalgliesh, I did not have to succumb to these atavistic truths.

In The Murder Room, James describes Dalgliesh’s encounter with a victim burned alive in his own car:
Through the half-closed door he could see the ulna, and a few burnt fragments of cloth adhered to a thread of muscle. All that could burn on the head had been destroyed and the fire had extended to just above the knees. The charred face, the features obliterated, was turned towards him and the whole head, black as a spent match, looked unnaturally small. The mouth gaped in a grimace, seeming to mock the head’s grotesquerie. Only the teeth, gleaming white against the charred flesh, and a small patch of cracked skull proclaimed the corpse’s humanity.
She offers no screens for the reader. This death was full of horror and malice. In all of James’s murder mysteries, the brutal facts of death are on full display for the reader.

It is this transparency, I believe, that put Dalgliesh’s emotional balance into stark relief for me. A detective who had seen the worst in humanity, and yet kept his own in the process. Towards the end of The Murder Room, the murderer safely imprisoned and justice achieved in the only way possible for the victims, Dalgliesh reflects:
He felt both sad and exhausted but the emotion was not strange to him; this was often what he felt at the end of a case. He thought of the lives which his life had so briefly touched, of the secrets he had learned, the lies and the truths, the horror and the pain. Those lives so intimately touched would go on, as would his. Walking back… he turned his mind to the weekend ahead and was filled with a precarious joy.
If Adam Dalgliesh could encounter the worst of mankind and yet still perceive joy in life, I began to believe that I could figure out a way to feel joy again without my father.

Over the next year, I read James’s entire catalogue, which in its breadth covers detective fiction (the Dalgliesh and Cordelia Gray series), science fiction (Children of Men), nonfiction (The Maul and the Pear Tree), and her own memoir (Time to Be in Earnest). As I learned more about James herself, her personal story also became a model of how to restart my life without a father. James lost her husband at an early age after his struggles with mental illness. She then proceeded to raise her two daughters on her own while working full time as a civil servant and writing on the weekends. Knowing this now, I look back on my initial trip to the library with a sense of mild bemusement–although I hadn’t known it then, I’d discovered in the library that day another widow and her wide world of stories that would eventually see me out of my grief.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Author Wore Prada

This July, I published my first novel, An Innocent Fashion, the story of a queer, biracial millennial who spirals into a depression after landing his dream job at a fashion magazine. The book was aptly pitched as “The Bell Jar meets The Devil Wears Prada” — with one foot firmly in each of both the “literary” and “commercial” realms. Yet the latter half of this equation proved the source of a major frustration. Specifically, I was self-conscious about other people’s biases against fashion, the commercial (read: “unserious”) theme on which my whole novel pivoted. In interviews I downplayed the fashion element over and over, explaining that despite being set in the office of a fashion magazine, the book was complex, using fashion to explore deeper societal issues.

Part of my preoccupation with “seriousness” came with the territory of being a first-time author; I yearned to be well-respected, considered “good enough” for one’s work to count as capital-L Literature. But the other part stemmed from a truth I’d been fighting from a young age: that fashion, which I had been passionate about from a young age, was not a very serious or important subject.

I grew up within a tight-knit Cuban family in Miami, surrounded by traditional values including the sharp distinction between male and female gender roles. As do many others, I learned that fashion was “for girls,” the subtext being that as it was somehow lesser — a frivolity. Personally, I didn’t see why fashion should be considered inherently more trivial than any other form of creative expression — writing, for instance, or fine art. I maintained that fashion’s unfair reputation was a reflection of my conservative environment. But even as an undergraduate at liberal-minded Yale, where intelligent peers sometimes expressed a heady disregard for the sartorial sphere, the effects of an entrenched bias were still evident. Others didn’t think as highly about fashion as I did; everywhere I went, fashion was considered frivolous.

Many books that embraced fashion as subject matter seemed to confirm and perpetuate this notion. As far as I could tell, fashion-oriented books fell primarily into the category of chick lit — juicy reads like Confessions of a Shopaholic and Bergdorf Blonds, in which “fashion” was a code word for the same kind of guilty pleasures afforded by junk food and reality TV. Of course, the biggest phenomenon in this league was The Devil Wears Prada.

Because like the author of Prada, I too had been a fashion assistant when I wrote my book, Prada had made for an inevitable comparison to An Innocent Fashion from the start. But unlike my book, however, in which even the least likable characters defy overarching stereotypes, Prada devotes 360 pages (and the film equivalent, two hours) to driving home the idea that fashion is not only frivolous, but also, inexplicably, “bad” — and that the people who love it are some inevitable combination of mean, superficial, and/or stupid. Aspiring to a career in”serious” journalism — the protagonist Andy Sachs paints an unanimously damning picture of her colleagues: nasty, brutish, and dagger-heeled.

The result of this reductive portrayal of the fashion industry is that pithy stereotypes remain unchallenged — a missed opportunity.

After all, it wasn’t always this way. If, in many realms, fashion has had an unfair reputation as a shallow womanly diversion, in literature it was put to use by some of our most important authors.

Consider Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in which, after her husband’s death, she can’t bear to throw away his shoes, which she compares to vital organs: “How could he come back if they took away his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?” There’s Sylvia Plath, whose novel The Bell Jar paints a portrait of a woman on the verge of losing her sanity, while working for the fictional equivalent of Mademoiselle in the ’50s. While the superficial magazine goings-on provoke the main character’s despair as she realizes her powerlessness to resist her destiny as a wife/mother/homemaker, she is frequently transfixed in earnest by the beauty of clothes and shoes, and “a whole life of marvelous, elaborate decadence that attracted me like a magnet” — making her relationship to fashion complex and real. In Edith Wharton’s society novels, corsetry and ruffles help Wharton make elegant, searing criticisms of class and gender inequality (“If I were shabby no one would have me,” says Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, “a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself”) — while who could forget the meaningful implications of fashion in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or The Great Gatsby, or Gone with the Wind?

Contemporary books touting fashion as subject matter rarely, if ever, offer such depth or complexity, while those that revolve around fashion magazines nearly always feature a cast made up exclusively of privileged white women. This perhaps more than anything is what I hoped would distinguish my novel. Given the precedent set by annals of homogeneously populated chick lit, the main character isn’t who you’d expect. He’s a person of color, queer, and the opposite of rich — an outsider named Ethan for whom the glamour of fashion represents the inaccessibility of the American dream. In the Prada-sphere, Ethan would surely be reduced to a stock character — most likely, a white woman’s sassy gay best friend.

The need for nuanced representations of fashion in fiction has never been greater. Fashion offers a unique lens to view some of the most important issues of our time: class, gender, race, and sexuality. Depictions of fashion in literature can and should reflect that, providing new ways to engage with the dialogue of human progress, challenging our ideas about society and personal identity. These goals, after all, are at the heart of literature and fashion alike.

See Also: Clothes in Books and Ways to go Wrong

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

 

Octogenarian Hotties

1.
American book publishers have forever been on the lookout for the next hot young thing. In a country built by people who shucked the old world in favor of a new one they got to make up on the fly, this hunger for newness — in books and just about everything else — was probably an inevitable strain of the national character. And it hasn’t been an entirely bad thing. A very cursory list of American writers who got published before they turned 25 includes Truman Capote, Michael Chabon, Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Safran Foer, Langston Hughes, Norman Mailer, Carson McCullers, Karen Russell, Gore Vidal, and David Foster Wallace. Not a single dog in that pack.

But for every hot young thing who went on to a long and venerable career, there are dozens, hundreds, who blazed briefly and then vanished. Moreover, publishing’s abiding obsession with fresh voices ignores a curious fact about our current literary scene: a startling number of the finest writers at work today are not twentysomethings; they’re eightysomethings. Yes, we’re witnessing the unlikely rise of the octogenarian hottie. (Fellow staff writer Sonya Chung explores and celebrates the work of later-in-life writers at our sister site, Bloom.) Here are sketches of a half-dozen members of this implausibly durable and prolific tribe.

2.
Gay Talese
At the age of 84, Gay Talese has just published his 14th work of non-fiction. As we have come to expect from one of our greatest living journalists, The Voyeur’s Motel is richly reported, elegantly written — and deeply disturbing. Above all, it’s a testament to the payoffs when a skilled reporter stays in for the long haul. Talese, who once wrote for and then wrote a book about our newspaper of record, calls himself “a man of record.” In bulging file cabinets in his subterranean bunker in New York City, he tucks away every scrap of research for possible use at a later date. He discards nothing because he understands that everything has the potential to become a story.

This obsessive collecting accounts for the existence of The Voyeur’s Motel. The titular character is Gerald Foos, who bought a motel near Denver in the 1960s for the express purpose of spying on his guests. He cut holes in the ceilings of several rooms, then installed fake vents that allowed him to climb into the attic and observe everything that happened in the rooms below. In 1980, Foos wrote an anonymous letter about his project to Talese, who was about to publish his best-seller about sex in America, Thy Neighbor’s Wife. “I did this purely out of my unlimited curiosity about people and not just as some deranged voyeur,” Foos wrote, adding, “I have logged an accurate record of the majority of the individuals that I have watched, and compiled interesting statistics on each…”

Intrigued, Talese eventually visited the Manor House Motel and accompanied Foos into his attic observatory for several voyeuristic sessions. But since Foos was not willing to reveal his identity — and since Talese insists on using real names — the notes went into Talese’s file cabinets, along with the copious journal entries Foos began to send. Foos insisted that his retrofitted motel was not the lair of “some pervert or Peeping Tom,” but rather “the finest laboratory in the world for observing people in their natural state.” He saw himself as a “pioneering sex researcher” in a league with Masters and Johnson.

Foos’s journals chronicled every imaginable kind of participant in every imaginable scenario: sex between happily and unhappily married couples, group sex, swingers, cross-dressers, a nun, drug dealers, prostitutes, con artists, wounded Vietnam veterans, and one guy who had sex with a teddy bear. Foos even witnessed a murder. But since the voyeur remained unwilling to go on the record, Talese filed away the journal entries and eventually forgot about Gerald Foos.

Then in 2013 — 33 years after he first wrote to Talese, and several years after he sold his two motels — Foos called Talese to announce that he was finally willing to go public with his story. Talese was ready. He had everything he needed in chronological order in his file cabinets, including the fact that the voyeur’s experiment became a long slide into misanthropy. After decades of peeping, Foos concluded: “People are basically dishonest and unclean; they cheat and lie and are motivated by self-interest. They are part of a fantasy world of exaggerators, game players, tricksters, intriguers, thieves, and people in private who are never what they portray themselves as being in public.”

When Talese made one last research trip to Colorado in the summer of 2015, Foos took him to the site of the recently demolished Manor House Motel. Foos was hoping to find a souvenir in the fenced-in platter of dirt, but after a while he gave up. When his wife suggested they go home, he said, “Yes, I’ve seen enough.” There was to be one major hiccup. As the book was going to press, a Washington Post reporter dug up the fact that Gerald Foos had failed to tell Talese that he had sold his the Manor House Motel and then repurchased it in the 1980s — after the events recorded in The Voyeur’s Motel. Talese warned in the book that Foos could be “an inaccurate and unreliable narrator,” adding, “I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript.” Despite these clear caveats, Talese blurted to a Post reporter that his book’s credibility was “down the toilet” and he would not be promoting it. Happily, Talese quickly came to his senses and disavowed his disavowal, then vigorously set about promoting a book that only a “man of record” and a gifted journalist could have written.

Cynthia Ozick
At the age of 88 — “piano keys,” as she merrily puts it — Cynthia Ozick has just published her seventh volume of criticism, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, the yin to the yang of her high-minded novels (read our interview with Ozick here). A self-proclaimed “fanatic” in the cause of literature, Ozick is not ashamed to be wistful about the passing of a time when “the publication of a serious literary novel was an exuberant communal event.” In a sense, Ozick is a keeper of a guttering flame, but she presses on, living in the bedroom community of New Rochelle where she has lived since the 1960s, not far from her girlhood home in the Bronx. She rarely ventures beyond the neighborhood supermarket these days, and she still writes late into the night at the Sears, Roebuck desk she has owned since childhood.

One sign of greatness in a writer of fiction is the ability to make readers care about characters and worlds that would ordinarily be of no interest to them. I approached Ozick’s 2004 novel, Heir to the Glimmering World, with more than a little trepidation. It’s the story of a young woman named Rose Meadows who accepts a job as assistant to Rudolf Mitwisser, an imposing scholar of a medieval Jewish heresy known as Karaism. The novel unfolds in the Bronx in the mid-1930s, amid an enclave of refugees from Europe’s gathering storm. Not exactly my kind of set-up, but my trepidation vanished before I reached the bottom of the first page. I was beguiled, swept away.

The publication of that novel also served as a reminder that Ozick can be funny in a brazen, Buster-Keaton kind of way. Thirty-eight years after publishing her first novel, Ozick got sent out on her first book tour to promote Heir, a form of exquisite torture and humiliation that she chronicled for the New York Times in a story that should be required reading for every aspiring novelist and every comedy writer. Yes, high literature may be all but dead in America, but it helps that a keeper of the flame is still able to make us laugh out loud.

Toni Morrison
Last year, at the age of 84, Toni Morrison, our only living Nobel laureate, published a slender novel called God Help the Child. Unlike her previous 10 novels, this one avoids large historical themes — particularly slavery and its unending repercussions — and instead tells a fable-like story of a well-off cosmetics executive named Bride living in modern-day California. The damage done to children has been an abiding preoccupation of Morrison’s, going all the way back to her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in which an 11-year-old girl is pregnant after being raped by her father. In God Help the Child the damage is less brutal but no less insidious. Bride’s mother, Sweetness, was instantly and forever appalled by her daughter’s dark skin: “It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black.”

While God Help the Child is not Morrison’s finest work — how many novels rise to the level of Beloved? — it offers an insight into the sources of one writer’s late-career flowering. Arthritis has put Morrison in a wheelchair, and writing is not only a way out of physical pain, but a way to control her world. As she told The New York Times Magazine last year:
I know how to write forever. I don’t think I could have happily stayed here in the world if I did not have a way of thinking about it, which is what writing is for me. It’s control… Nothing matters more in the world or in my body or anywhere when I’m writing. It is dangerous because I’m thinking up dangerous, difficult things, but it is also extremely safe for me to be in that place.
Philip Levine
This fall, nearly two years after he died at the age of 87, the poet Philip Levine will posthumously publish a slim but sumptuous miscellany called My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry. A former U.S. poet laureate who came up through the infernos of his native Detroit’s auto factories, Levine was productive right up to the end of his long life, producing the essays, speeches, journal entries and verse fragments that make up this welcome new collection. It is, in essence, the story of how one poet got made, and it’s best read in tandem with Levine’s only other book of prose, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, from 1994. The new book offers a lovely description of Levine’s very first poems, composed when he was a teenager, at night, in woods near his home in Detroit. He called them “secret little speeches addressed to the moon.” Years later, on a return visit to his hometown, Levine encounters an elderly black man who is scratching out a garden and an existence amid the city’s ruins. As the two men talk, life and poetry merge. As Levine put it: “There are those rare times in my life when I know that what I’m living is in a poem I’ve still to write.”

Joan Didion
Now 81, Joan Didion has produced three fairly recent memoirs that prove beyond all doubt that she is a master stylist and one of our keenest social observers. The first of the three books, Where I Was From, is my favorite, a cold-eyed reassessment of the myths and assumptions Didion once held about her family and her native California, what she now scorns as “the local dreamtime.” The other two books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, are unflinching dissections of the grief Didion lived through after the deaths of her husband and daughter. Bravery, it turns out, is not the exclusive province of the young.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
At the age of 97 — which makes him the only nonagenarian in this tribe — the poet, publisher and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti is shopping a new book called To the Lighthouse, a surrealistic blend of fiction and autobiography. Ferlinghetti, who has published some 50 volumes of poetry, including the million-copy-seller A Coney Island of the Mind, is still represented by his long-time literary agent Sterling Lord, who is a spry 95.

3.
So why is it that some writers dry up while others keep producing good work deep into the twilight of their lives? There is no single reason for this late-career productivity, just as there is no single approach that unifies these writers. Talese and Ozick continue to plow the same furrows they’ve been plowing for decades, to great effect. For Morrison, writing is a way to escape physical pain and assert control. For Levine and Didion, the late years became a time of looking back, of revisiting origins and reassessing beliefs. For Ferlinghetti, it’s a chance to explore a new form. If their motivations and methods vary, it’s safe to say that all of these writers share Morrison’s need to write forever, that they’re in the grip of what the writer Roger Rosenblatt has called “the perpetually evolving yearning.” There will always be something new to say, maybe even some new way to say it.

In his posthumous collection of essays, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, Edward Said contended that late-life work isn’t always a summing up, or a display of accumulated wisdom, or a reassessment; it can also be “a form of exile” marked by “intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction.” Said cited Jean Genet and Ludwig von Beethoven, among others, as exemplars of this intransigence. Late style can also be a response to the breakdown of the body, as when Henri Matisse underwent colon surgery at age 71 and, no longer able to stand and work at an easel, gleefully embarked on what he called his “second life,” a 13-year flurry when he sat in a wheelchair and used simple scissors and sheets of colored paper to create the ebullient, child-like cutouts that would become the exclamation point of his long career. He kept at it until he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 84. The painter Chuck Close, who underwent a major stylistic shift of his own in his mid-70s, recently said, “The late stage can be very interesting. Had Matisse not done the cutouts, we would not know who he was.”

The above list doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive. It omits countless octogenarians who are still doing fine work, as well as writers who were productive until they died in their 80s (and beyond), including: Maya Angelou, who died at 86 in 2014; the poet John Ashbery, still prolific at 89; Saul Bellow, who died at 89 in 2005; E.L. Doctorow, who died last year at 84 and will posthumously publish his Collected Stories next year; Elizabeth Hardwick, who died at 91 in 2007; Gabriel García Márquez, who died at 87 in 2014; the Canadian short story master and Nobel laureate, Alice Munro, still working at 85; Philip Roth, (who is currently in retirement but was productive into his 80s); James Salter, who died last year at 90; and Tom Wolfe (85).

As different as these writers are, they do have one thing in common: they were all in for the long haul, and they all found a way to keep up the good work.

Image: Wikipedia, Girolamo Nerli

A Year In Reading: Brian Etling

It’s probably easiest to summarize my year in reading by relating a decision that came to typify my next 11 months with regards to books: I chose a long-awaited beach vacation with family as the time to finally sit down with The Year of Magical Thinking. There are few experiences quite so disorienting as thumbing through 200 pages worth of eviscerating grief (and near-matchless prose) in between body surfing and tossing a frisbee on a humid beach. Despite a bit of environmentally-inspired cognitive dissonance, I found the book to be everything that everyone had lauded it for/warned me about; it’s difficult to imagine ever reading another memoir about the loss of a loved one that captures the particularity of grief more capably than Joan Didion. That is, unless you want to talk about another book of Didion’s that is the worst kind of companion piece, Blue Nights.

As an independent bookseller-cum-college student slouching towards graduation, temptation to read is at an all-time high and time itself is at a premium. It would be dishonest of me to say that I don’t carve out a disturbing amount of my free time for some of life’s finer pleasures like binge watching nature documentaries and, more recently, pouring hours into Fallout 4. I imagine these luxuries are not afforded to my rooted friends with little ones and spouses, and I suspect this decision-anxiety is familiar for anyone who balances a career and a family. Nevertheless, my decision about what to read next was made by a mostly haphazard combination of chance and odd luck, having less to do with a conscious decision than with a serendipitous whim or a particularly bountiful bookstore shipment. That said, I managed to read a whole bunch of stuff.

Like everyone else in the world, I loved Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me — as far as I’m concerned, it’s deserving of all of the accolades and then some. A few surprise non-fiction favorites included One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Åsne Seierstad and Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement. Seierstad’s book is, as the heavy-handed subtitle suggests, the fascinating story of Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik from pre-birth to purgatorial present in prison — it’s hard to put down in the way that a car accident on the highway is hard to look away from. Clement’s book, on the other hand, is by turns delicate and lacerating in its riveting, poetic portrayal of the relationship between artistic savant Jean-Michel Basquiat and his partner/muse Suzanne Mallouk. As for drama, a customer’s suggestion to check out Middletown led to a months-long affair with all things Will Eno — it left me feeling even more suburban and despondent than usual (in a good way?).

Poetry is my real first love, and it’s the area where I found myself devoting most of my squirreled-away reading time. A ton of poets that I admire released collections this year — two of my longtime favorites, John Ashbery and Yusef Komunyakaa, each have new books out. Some of the new releases that I enjoyed a great deal were those by Terrance Hayes, Nick Flynn, Dorothea Lasky, Deborah Landau, and Richard Siken. A chance encounter with Elegy Owed by Bob Hicok mutated into near-total immersion in his body of work — Bob, if you’re reading this, I’m finished and I need some new poems.

The most interesting poetic rabbit hole I stumbled down this year began with reading A Question Mark Above the Sun by Kent Johnson. In Johnson’s bizarre book, he alleges that Frank O’Hara’s poem “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” (which was first discovered and recited by O’Hara’s longtime friend Kenneth Koch at a memorial event celebrating the poet’s life) was actually written by Koch and “given” to O’Hara as a kind of private elegy to his closest friend. It’s may be the most touching gesture in the history of poetry or a totally outrageous accusation — either way, it was the gateway book that led to my mainlining a dangerous cocktail of New York poetry which included the likes of Koch, James Schuyler, and Ted Berrigan.

A surprise reading trend that cropped up this past year included burning through collection after collection of unbelievable short stories by some frighteningly talented women. Like many others, I drank the Clarice Lispector Kool-Aid and trudged through her Complete Stories in a bewildered haze that I’m not sure I ever made it back out of. I prefer Lispector’s slim, puzzling novels to her stories, unlike another South American woman whose collection I read and loved, Silvina Ocampo. Ocampo’s stories are in the vein of a magical realism where all of the playful niceties are replaced by an unforgiving and overt brutality — needless to say, they are pretty badass. Collections by Lucia Berlin and Joy Williams were also among some of the best.

Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life was the most memorable — if profoundly depressing — novel that I spent time with this year. It shares my top fiction spot with Cow Country, a bizarre book penned by Adrian Jones Pearson, an openly self-identified pseudonym, and published by a nonexistent publishing house. The star of a few speculative pieces about the identity of its author (the most popular of which is Thomas Pynchon), Cow Country is smart and hilarious and incisive no matter who wrote it. Some of my other fiction favorites included Jesse Ball’s A Cure for Suicide, Per Petterson’s I Refuse, and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. My biggest letdown was Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, for which my expectations were too high and my disappointment now is total and all-encompassing. I found it far too guarded and vanilla for the same man who shocked my sensibilities with a couple of brilliant, fully-realized memoirs about an addiction to crack cocaine.

In writing this, it occurred to me that I must have had more time to read than I remember, or else I just didn’t take great care of myself, because I read a ton of books. However, for everything I read and loved, I watched another 10 books languish on the shelves at my store, knowing I would never have the time to pick them up. As far as figuring out what to read next is concerned, it seems that the stakes are higher than we often give them credit for; the decision is an expressed commitment to an ideal, be it beauty or bacchanalia. Or maybe I just want my job to feel important. And so we beat on, I guess.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

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Joan Didion, America’s Truth-Teller

“I’m not sure that I have a social conscience,” Joan Didion once said in an interview about her 1983 book, Salvador, about the El Salvadorian civil war. “It’s more an insistence that people tell the truth. The decision to go to El Salvador came one morning at the breakfast table. I was reading the newspaper and it just didn’t make sense.”

This is what separates Joan Didion from the rest of the world. We all wake up to news that makes no sense every day. What, we wonder, is going on with all these white cops shooting black men on our streets? How can it be that we still haven’t closed the prison at Guantanamo Bay? On what planet is Donald Trump a viable candidate for president? We register the answers we receive to these questions as nonsensical, but then we click the next link and go on with our day. Didion, facing her era’s knottiest public puzzle, hopped the next flight to El Salvador.

Salvador, as it happens, was not Didion’s finest hour as a reporter. She spent just 12 days in-country, had little Spanish and less knowledge of the country’s culture and history, and the book she wrote had, by her own admission, “no impact. None. Zero.” But her reasons for writing it offer a revealing window onto her working method and provide her biographer, Tracy Daugherty, with a crucial plot point in the thematic arc for his sprawling biography, The Last Love Song, which comes out this week.

In the 1960s, as Americans battled in the streets over civil rights and the war in Vietnam, Daugherty reminds us, Didion lost faith in the defining narratives of American life. A fifth-generation Californian whose ancestors had crossed the plains in covered wagons, only narrowing missing disaster at Donner Pass, Didion found that the country she lived in had ceased to make sense to her. A popular presidential candidate was shot in a hotel kitchen just miles from where she lived. A newspaper heiress was abducted from her Berkeley apartment and weeks later strapped on an M1 carbine to help her abductors rob banks. A scrawny self-styled guru set up camps in the desert where he persuaded a loosely organized family of runaways to kill a pregnant woman and three friends with steak knives. “I was supposed to have a script and I had mislaid it,” wrote Didion in the title essay of her collection The White Album.

I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequences, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie, but a cutting room experience.

Putting her finger on the sense of dislocation felt by Americans of her generation, raised on John Wayne movies and rousing tales of America’s triumph in the Second World War, made Didion famous, but it also left her at an intellectual and emotional dead-end. This, after all, was the woman who opened The White Album with the words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” If the stories we tell ourselves no longer make sense, if even the briefest glance at the underlying facts exposes our national and personal narratives to be transparently hollow, how are we to live with ourselves?

In the 1980s, in a series of books that began with Salvador, Daugherty argues, Didion learned to look past the official narrative and focus on the story behind the story, the one found in a close reading of trial transcripts, declassified cables, and the back pages of underground newspapers. “Increasingly, in the 1980s,” Daugherty writes, “Didion’s writing discovered the real American stories not in the scenes, but behind them, in obscure rooms in queer places with unpronounceable names, where our government’s military and economic interests coiled in dark corners.” There, “in the outposts and archives, in the safe houses and bunkers, a logical, continuous, and traceable — if findable — narrative was unfolding all along.”

Didion’s pursuit of the story behind the story lifted her out of her post-1960s malaise and set the stage for a stream of brilliant late-career reportage, much of it written for The New York Review of Books, that peeled away the façade of American political and cultural life, laying out in Didion’s distinctive flat, declarative sentences how things really work. This late run culminated in Didion’s best-selling book, The Year of Magical Thinking, her 2005 memoir of her husband’s death in which she turned her formidable powers of analysis back on her herself, exploring how the lies we tell ourselves can also save us.

The Last Love Song is far too long, devoting hundreds of pages to decades-old Hollywood gossip and exhumations of skeletons in the closets of Didion’s extended family members, but at its core it provides an indispensable guide to understanding not just the value of Didion’s contribution to American literature, but how she pulled it off. Among the pleasures of Daugherty’s portrait is the light he sheds on Didion’s literary education, first at U.C. Berkeley, where she learned the close reading skills that came in so handy later in her career, and then at Vogue in New York, where a first job writing captions for photo spreads taught her how to get the most meaning from the least number of words.

In this age of blogs and YouTube rants, when the length of a piece of prose is determined largely by the amount of time its author can afford to spend writing it for free, we forget how formative the demands of writing for a physical page were for writers of the print era. At Vogue, Didion’s photo captions were a kind of fashion-plate haiku, “blocks of text, thirty lines long, each featuring sixty-four characters.” Didion’s editor would have her write 300 to 400 words, and then, attacking the page with a blunt pencil, whittle it down to the most evocative 50. “It is easy to make light of this kind of ‘writing,’” Didion later said. “I do not make light of it at all: it was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words…a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy, but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page.”

From caption writer, Didion climbed the masthead at Vogue while taking assignments from publications as varied as Mademoiselle and The National Review and writing her first novel, Run, River, at night and on weekends. These were the fat years of the Age of Print, when television was still in its infancy and the G.I. Bill had just put a generation through college. At Time, where her husband John Gregory Dunne worked when Didion was at Vogue, “waiters from the Tower Suite on top of the Time-Life Building rolled in buffet carts with beef Wellington and chicken divan and sole and assorted appetizers and vegetables and desserts.” Liquor was served in “prodigious quantities” and hotel rooms “were available for those suburbanites who had missed their last train, or would so claim to their wives when in fact all they wished was an adulterous snuggle with a back-of-the-book researcher.”

The largesse of the print-era gravy train meant that when Didion and Dunne moved to California, they not only could count on a national audience for the columns they wrote for Life and The Saturday Evening Post, but that they could afford to do so while living at the edge of an estate overlooking the sea a few miles south of Los Angeles. In fact, in the 50 years since Didion left her editor’s desk at Vogue in 1964, decades in which she and Dunne lived in some of the toniest neighborhoods in New York and L.A., neither of them ever held a job other than writer.

Of course, the economic bounty provided by glossy magazines and Hollywood script deals would have meant nothing if Didion had nothing to say, as is demonstrated, perhaps unintentionally, by Daugherty’s exhaustive chronicling of the checkered careers of John Gregory Dunne and his brother Dominick. Daugherty’s tales of the Brothers Dunne, along with that of Didion’s sad, alcoholic adopted daughter Quintana, who died of acute pancreatitis in 2005, comprise a sort of shadow narrative in The Last Love Song, one that bloats the book to more than 700 pages and occasionally threatens to overwhelm the central story.

But if Daugherty makes too much of John Gregory Dunne’s angst over his mediocrity and Dominick Dunne’s long road from cokehead movie producer to closeted bisexual celebrity crime journalist, one comes away from The Last Love Song with a renewed sense of how rare true talent is, what a gift it is — for the bearer, and for her audience. John Gregory Dunne was every bit as committed to his craft as his his wife, and Dominick Dunne far eclipsed her gift for self-reinvention, but only Didion possessed the luck of serving as a human tuning fork for the anxieties of her age and the dogged curiosity to pursue those anxieties wherever they led.

No More Lies: The Great Second-Half 2015 Nonfiction Preview

Last week, our crack team of literary prognosticators gave you the early scoop on 82 of the most anticipated books due out in the next six months, but most of those books were fiction. Today, we offer a preview of some of the most compelling nonfiction titles set to arrive in bookstores between now and December.

The big preview already included write-ups of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Last Mass by Jamie Iredell, The Lost Landscape by Joyce Carol Oates, Behind the Glass Wall by Aleksandar Hemon, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell, The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson, and Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens by László Krasznahorkai. Below you will find 14 more upcoming books on topics ranging from modern-day witches to the science of creating a catchy pop tune, along with biographies of Joan Didion and George Custer and histories of post-Katrina New Orleans and the 2013 gay-rights ruling that paved the way for last month’s Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage in all 50 states.

July
Rethinking Narcissism by Craig Malkin: “Narcissist” may well have replaced “chauvinist” as the go-to blanket insult of the post-millennial age. Malkin, a Harvard Medical School psychologist, would like to change that, and help Americans see the positive side of self-admiration. Most people’s personalities, he argues, fall somewhere on a spectrum ranging from pure selflessness to laughable grandiosity. Those whose narcissism is extreme can be sociopaths, but those in the middle range possess a strong — and healthy — sense of self. It wouldn’t be pop social science without some news you can use, so Malkin offers tips on “how to promote healthy narcissism in our partners, our children, and ourselves.”

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan: Raised in California and Hawaii, Finnegan has journeyed through the U.S., South Pacific, Australia, Asia, and Africa in search of the perfect wave. In this memoir, Finnegan, now a New Yorker staff writer, relates tales of life in a whites-only school gang in Honolulu, riding the surf off an uninhabited island in Fiji, and his further travels through Samoa, Tonga, and Indonesia. Barbarian Days is being marketed as “an old-school adventure story, an intellectual autobiography, a social history, a literary road movie, and an extraordinary exploration of the gradual mastering of an exacting, little understood art.”

August
The Last Love Song by Tracy Daugherty: Pioneering New Journalist Joan Didion gets her first full-length biography from the author of Hiding Man, the 2009 biography of Donald Barthelme. The emphasis here is on full-length: The Last Love Song clocks in at 752 pages. But then Didion has led an usually full life, from promotional copywriter at Vogue, to novelist, to tough-minded chronicler of the Age of Aquarius, to screenwriter, to tough-minded chronicler of aging in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights.

No House to Call My Home by Ryan Berg: In the U.S., according to a recent study from the UCLA  School of Law, 43 percent of LGBT homeless youth were forced out by their parents because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Berg encounters the raw reality behind this statistic when he takes a job in a group home for LGBT teenagers, many of them minorities. As he works to wean his charges away from sex work and drug abuse, he comes face to face with a system that focuses on warehousing kids rather than on helping them develop skills and relationships that could lead them to successful adult lives.

Katrina by Gary Rivlin: Ten years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005, flooding 80 percent of homes in New Orleans, the city is still recovering from the human and architectural damage the storm wrought. In this deeply reported new book, Rivlin, who witnessed the immediate aftermath of the hurricane as a reporter for The New York Times, details the perfect storm of natural disaster, neglected infrastructure, and centuries-old structural racism that made Katrina so devastating.

September
South Toward Home by Margaret Eby: Today, we seem to prefer our literary critics to leaven their critical insights with healthy doses of travel writing. As Elif Batuman did for Russian literature in The Possessed and Olivia Laing did for alcoholic writers in The Trip to Echo Spring, so Eby does for Southern writers in her second book. A displaced Southerner now living in Brooklyn, Eby peers into William Faulkner’s liquor cabinet in Oxford, Miss., and interviews the man who feeds the peafowl at Andalusia, the rural Georgia farm where Flannery O’Connor wrote her most famous stories, all in an effort to pin down the elusive quality that makes a Southern writer Southern.

October
Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations by Greil Marcus: The longtime Rolling Stone critic traces the history of American music through three examples of “commonplace songs,” songs that convey the sense of having no single author. In this book drawn from his 2013 Massey Lectures delivered at Harvard, Marcus discusses Bascom Lunsford’s 1928 “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” Geeshie Wiley’s 1930 “Last Kind Words Blues,” and Bob Dylan’s 1964 “Ballad of Hollis Brown” to examine how a song that sounds as though it was written by no one can speak to everyone.

The Song Machine by John Seabrook: Can’t get that Katy Perry song out of your head? Seabroook, a reliably entertaining staff writer at The New Yorker, ventures behind the glamorous façade of the music industry to learn how teams of specialists working in digital labs create melodies brimming with “hooks,” musical burrs designed to snag your ears every seven seconds. Traveling from New York to Los Angeles and from Stockholm to Korea, Seabrook traces the growth of manufactured hits from their origins in 1990s Sweden to their omnipresence on today’s pop charts.

Witches of America by Alex Mar: When we hear the word “witch,” most of us think of black hats and broomsticks. Mar, a former editor at Rolling Stone, goes past the Halloween clichés to provide an inside look at Paganism, a nature-worshipping, polytheistic religion practiced by some one million Americans. After participating in dozens of Pagan rituals attended by a wide cross-section of society, ranging from single moms to war veterans and computer programmers, Mar comes away from her five-year journey into the occult with an unexpected take on faith in post-millennial America.

Hemingway in Love by A.E. Hotchner: In the late 1940s, at the apex of his fame, Ernest Hemingway befriended a young writer named A.E. Hotchner. The friendship has proven lucrative for Hotchner, who is best known for his 1966 biography Papa Hemingway, and valuable for readers hungering for an unvarnished glimpse at the intimate life of America’s master prose stylist. Now 95, Hotchner recounts his last conversations with Hemingway in 1961 — conversations Hotchner says he kept secret for decades out of respect for Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary. Just weeks before his suicide, Hemingway unburdened himself to Hotchner about the romantic dalliances that ended his marriage to his first wife, Hadley, in 1920s Paris, and about the many later macho escapades that made him a legend.

Custer’s Trials by T.J. Stiles: Who was George Custer before he led his troops into the most ignominious defeat in American military history in the Battle of the Little Bighorn? Stiles, who won a Pulitzer for his last book, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, follows Custer’s public life as a soldier in the Civil War and American frontier, and offers glimpses of his private life in his tumultuous marriage to his highly educated wife, Libby. Stiles’s first book, Jesse James: The Last Rebel of the Civil War, sifted the truth from the tall tales about another legendary 19th-century American. Look for more of the same here.

Then Comes Marriage by Roberta Kaplan, with Lisa Dickey: Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer had been a couple for more than 40 years, but when Spyer died, the federal government refused to recognize their marriage, forcing Windsor to pay a huge estate tax bill. Enter litigator Roberta Kaplan, who, along with the ACLU, took Windsor’s case all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 2013 issued a landmark ruling declaring the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, thus paving the way for the more recent ruling granting gay couples the right to marry in all 50 states. A perfect wedding gift for the lawyer in your life, gay or straight, planning to get married this fall.

November
St. Marks Is Dead by Ada Calhoun: Once the site of Colonial Dutch Director-General Peter Stuyvesant’s pear orchard, St. Marks Place, three short blocks in the heart of Manhattan’s East Village, later came to exemplify downtown cool for generations of hippies, artists, and revolutionaries. Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk played jazz there, at The Five-Spot. Punk rockers like the Ramones and Debbie Harry shopped there, at Trash and Vaudeville. Radical feminist Shulamith Firestone raised consciousnesses there. Calhoun, herself a native of St. Marks Place, profiles local denizens from anarchist Emma Goldman to white-boy rappers the Beastie Boys in this history of the iconic street organized around pivotal moments when critics declared “St. Marks is dead.”

Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker: Anyone who has watched Parker work her lip-rippling charms on stage or screen could bet she would be whip-smart and funny, but who knew America’s favorite TV pot dealer had a literary streak? Here Parker tries a novel take on the celebrity memoir, styled as a series of letters to men, real and imagined, who have shaped her life. To judge from early reactions on social media, the people who didn’t expect to like the book because it was by a famous actress liked it, while those who picked it up because it was by a famous actress came away bored and perplexed — a good sign.

A Reader’s Book of Days: A Reading List for a Month of Storytelling by the Fire

Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.

Did Dickens invent Christmas? It’s sometimes said he did, recreating the holiday as we know it out of the neglect that had been imposed on it by Puritanism, Utilitarianism, and the Scrooge-like forces of the Industrial Revolution. But Dickens himself would hardly have said he invented the traditions he celebrated: the mission of his Ghost of Christmas Present, after all, is to show the spirit and customs of the holiday are authentic and alive among the people, not just humbug. But A Christmas Carol did appear alongside the arrival in Victorian England of some of the modern traditions of the holiday. It was published in 1843, the same year the first commercial Christmas cards were printed in England, and two years after Prince Albert brought the German custom of the Christmas tree with him to England after his marriage to Queen Victoria.

Christmas was undoubtedly Dickens’s favorite holiday, and he made it a tradition of his own. A Christmas Carol was the first of his five almost-annual Christmas books (he regretted skipping a year in 1847 while working on Dombey and Son; he was “very loath to lose the money,” he said. “And still more so to leave any gap at Christmas firesides which I ought to fill”), and then for eighteen more years he published Christmas editions of his magazines Household Words and All the Year Round. And the popular and exhausting activity that nearly took over the last decades of his career, his public reading of his own works, began with his Christmas stories. For years they remained his favorite texts to perform, whether it was December or not.

One of the Christmas traditions Dickens most wanted to celebrate is one mostly forgotten now: storytelling. The early Christmas numbers of Household Words were imagined as stories told around the fireplace, often ghost stories like A Christmas Carol. It’s an easily forgotten detail that the classic American ghost tale, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, is also told around the Christmas hearth. James begins his tale with the mention of a story told among friends “round the fire,” about which we learn little except that it was “gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be,” and that it involved a child. Three nights later that story inspires another, even stranger and more unsettling and involving not one child but two, a ratcheting of dread that gave James the title for his tale.

Telling ghost stories around the hearth might have declined since Dickens’s and James’s times, but it’s striking how important the voice of the storyteller remains in more recent Christmas traditions: Dylan Thomas, nostalgic for the winters of his childhood in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”; Jean Shepherd, nostalgic for the Red Ryder air rifles of his own childhood in In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, later adapted, with Shepherd’s own narration, into the cable TV staple A Christmas Story; and David Sedaris, nostalgic for absolutely nothing from his years as an underpaid elf in the “SantaLand Diaries,” the NPR monologue that launched his storytelling career.

Gather round the fire with these December tales:

Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter (1845)
In a Christmas tale of sparkling simplicity, a small brother and sister, heading home from grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve across a mountain pass, find their familiar path made strange and spend a wakeful night in an ice cave on a glacier as the Northern Lights–which the girl takes as a visit from the Holy Child–flood the dark skies above them.

The Chemical History of a Candle by Michael Faraday (1861)
Dickens was not the only Victorian with a taste for public speaking: Faraday created the still-ongoing series of Christmastime scientific lectures for young people at the Royal Institution, the best known of which remains his own, a classic of scientific explanation for readers of any age.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
If you were one of the March girls, you’d read the copies of The Pilgrim’s Progress you found under your pillow on Christmas morning, but we’ll excuse you if you prefer to read about the Marches themselves instead.

Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara (1934)
Julian English’s three-day spiral to a lonely end, burning every bridge he can in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, from the day before Christmas to the day after, is inexplicable, inevitable, and compelling, the inexplicability of his self-destruction only adding to his isolation.

“The Birds” by Daphne du Maurier (1952)
Hitchcock transplanted the unsettling idea of mass avian malevolence in du Maurier’s story from the blustery December coast of England to the Technicolor brightness of California, but the original, told with the terse modesty of postwar austerity, still carries a greater horror.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951)
Holden’s not supposed to be back from Pencey Prep for Christmas vacation until Wednesday, but since he’s been kicked out anyway, he figures he might as well head to the city early and take it easy in some inexpensive hotel before going home all rested up and feeling swell.

Instead of a Letter by Diana Athill (1963)
The “twenty years of unhappiness” recounted in Athill’s memoir, after her fiancé wrote to say he was marrying someone else just before being killed in the war, ended on her forty-first birthday with the news she had won the Observer’s Christmas story competition (the same prize that launched Muriel Spark’s career seven years before).

Tape for the Turn of the Year by A. R. Ammons (1965)
The long poem was a form made for Ammons, with its space to wander around, contradict himself, and turn equally to matters quotidian and cosmic, as he does in this lovely experiment that, in a sort of serious joke on Kerouac, he composed on a single piece of adding machine tape from December 1963 to early January 1964.

Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie (1976)
Want to extend The Catcher in the Rye’s feeling of unrequited holiday ennui well into your twenties? Spend the days before New Year’s with Charles, impatient, blunt, and love-struck over a married woman whom he kept giving Salinger books until she couldn’t bear it anymore.

The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth (1979)
The brash and eventful fictional life of Nathan Zuckerman, which Roth extended in another eight books, starts quietly in this short novel (one of Roth’s best), with his abashed arrival on a December afternoon at the country retreat of his idol, the reclusive novelist E. I. Lonoff.

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (1998)
Head south with the snowbirds to the humid swamps of Florida as Orlean investigates the December theft of over two hundred orchids from state swampland and becomes fascinated by its strangely charismatic primary perpetrator, John Laroche.

Stalingrad by Antony Beevor (1999)
Or perhaps your December isn’t cold enough. Beevor’s authoritative account of the siege of Stalingrad, the wintry graveyard of Hitler’s plans to conquer Russia, captures the nearly incomprehensible human drama that changed the course of the war at a cost of a million lives.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
Didion’s year of grief, recorded in this clear-eyed memoir, began with her husband’s sudden death on December 30, 2003, and ended on the last day of 2004, the first day, as she realized to her sorrow, that he hadn’t seen the year before.

Last Day at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan (2007)
Manny DeLeon will be all right—he has a transfer to a nearby Olive Garden set up—but in his last shift as manager of a Connecticut Red Lobster, shutting down for good with a blizzard on the way, he becomes a sort of saint of the corporate service economy in O’Nan’s modest marvel of a novel.

December by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter (2012)
Two German artists reinvent the calendar book, with Richter’s photographs of snowy, implacable winter and Kluge’s enigmatic anecdotes from Decembers past, drawing from 21,999 b.c. to 2009 a.d. but circling back obsessively to the two empires, Nazi and Soviet, that met at Stalingrad.

The Book That Didn’t Break Out and the Disease That Did

1.
You hope that when your book is published, it will break out.

It will reach some sort of tipping point, and suddenly you’re selling not piddling hundreds but thousands of copies. Success will breed more success; it will spread. You know that the chances of it happening are slight, and that you’re being naive to hope for it. But secretly you hope anyway.

I secretly hoped that my debut memoir would make at least a small splash. I knew that by its very nature — it was about my experiences as a new mother of twins, and my struggles with clinical depression during that time — it wouldn’t appeal to everyone. I wasn’t deluded enough to think it would be the next Eat, Pray, Love. But maybe, I hoped, I would get lucky, and it would become the equivalent of that book for expectant or new moms.

In the weeks leading up to the book’s release, I worked tirelessly to get the pieces in place: I contacted bloggers and wrote pieces to submit for publication in conjunction with the release. I lined up readings at bookstores and talks with Mothers of Twins clubs. I Facebooked and Tweeted my fingers to the bone. I waited for something — anything — my publisher was doing on the publicity front to bear fruit. I even, ridiculously, wished for success when I blew out the candles on my birthday cake a month before publication. (A wish that could have been much better spent, in retrospect.)

I hoped, I planned, I pushed, I wished. And then the book was published. I got some very positive reviews, some lovely letters from readers, and a few halfway decent publicity opportunities. But the flame never quite caught. Things just politely smoldered.

2.
One month after Double Time was published, we brought one of our five-year-old twin daughters, Clio, to see her pediatrician. Her legs and hips had been aching, and she was having occasional abdominal pain. She was also having fevers several times a week that would flare in the late afternoons, drain her energy and appetite, and be completely gone by the next morning.

The doctor drew blood for a complete count and tested for Lyme disease and arthritis. The results were all negative. She seemed to be fighting a virus, they said. They were quite certain of this, because her white blood cell count was a little high. Nothing to be alarmed about. Come back if the symptoms persist or get worse, they said.

The symptoms did persist and get worse, and after another cursory visit to the pediatrician, we asked to be referred to a rheumatologist. While we waited for the date of that appointment to arrive, Clio’s fevers became more frequent. She was hobbling from pain in her legs much of the time. Then she began developing isolated hives on her torso and arms that would bloom to the size of a splayed adult hand and vanish within the space of minutes. After several days of this, she spiked a 105-degree fever.

I brought her immediately to the emergency room of our local hospital, where the doctor ordered the same blood tests that had been run three weeks earlier. While I appreciated her thoroughness, I couldn’t imagine the results would be any different such a short time later.

But they were. This time Clio’s white blood cell count was abnormally high. Her platelet and red blood cell counts were abnormally low. She was immediately hooked up to an IV line for antibiotics — her immune system was essentially non-existent at that point, the doctor explained — and we were transferred by ambulance to a hospital in downtown Boston. Less than 48 hours later, Clio had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

“How is it possible,” I asked the oncologist who gave us the news, “that her blood tests were normal three weeks ago? Was it a mistake?”

“Leukemia can do this,” she replied. “The leukemic cells can be brewing in the marrow for months, and then they hit a sort of tipping point and break out into the rest of the body.”

While I’d been planning, pushing, and preparing for my book launch, mutated white blood cells in my daughter’s body had been stealthily multiplying, on a mission to crowd her healthy blood cells out of her marrow and her bloodstream completely. But their success, unlike my book’s, was inevitable.

3.
It’s a commonly held misperception among writers and would-be readers that in order to write a compelling memoir you have to have done or experienced something unusual or extraordinary.

But this is false. You don’t have to be famous. You don’t have to have had a miserable childhood, an addiction, or a life-threatening disease. You don’t have to have to have scaled Mount Everest blind or done something cleverly intentional like making every recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the course of a year.

You can write about a friendship, as Gail Caldwell does in her tender memoir Let’s Take the Long Way Home. You can write about losing loved ones, as Joan Didion does in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. You can write about becoming a mother, as Anne Lamott does in Operating Instructions.

What makes these books engaging is not the authors’ experiences — none of which are particularly exotic or unique — but how she writes about them. How they change her. How she makes us think or laugh or cry or simply feel less alone.

Likewise, there’s nothing remarkable about the story I relate in Double Time. I give birth to twin daughters, I muddle my way through the first few years of their lives, try to achieve so-called work-life balance, and battle serious clinical depression along the way. It wasn’t the easiest three years of my life, but as I admit to myself in the introduction, it’s hardly an example of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of impossible odds. I didn’t write to book to be that; I wrote it because I thought it would be helpful and entertaining to new and expectant moms. That’s all.

Still, I had to make the same argument to myself — about what makes for a good and worthwhile memoir — on a regular basis as I was writing the book and, later, when I was promoting it. Repeatedly, when my confidence flagged and my inner literary snob rolled her eyes, I reminded myself that I did have the right to tell my story and urge others to read it, and that I wasn’t self-indulgent or narcissistic to do so.

It wasn’t Important Literature; that much I knew (and know) for sure. People wouldn’t be reading it decades from now, except perhaps doctoral students exploring the bizarre, early-21st-century craze for first-person writing about parenthood. But it was worthy of having been written. And people would want to read it. It was a good book. A very good book.

You have to engage in this sort of self-deception if you plan to publish, assuming you aren’t completely confident in and enraptured by your own writing. Otherwise, you might as well keep your manuscript in a drawer.

4.
The first night I spent in the hospital with Clio was the worst night of my life.

While my baby — my very heart — lay hooked up to monitors and bags of fluid, feverish and fitfully sleeping, I cried silently, unable to stop. I hadn’t eaten since that morning and almost fainted in the middle of the night when I got up to use the bathroom. I crawled into Clio’s bed and lay by her side for a while, but the warmth of her body, the familiar, yeasty smell of her perspiring head, the rhythm of her breath, the very aliveness of her — it was almost too much to bear.

At that point I had no idea how treatable childhood leukemia was, and how high the survival rates. I thought I was going to lose her.

Awake at two a.m., knowing that sleep was unlikely, I turned on my laptop and sent brief emails to three of my closest friends explaining what was happening. In my inbox were dozens of conversation threads from the previous few weeks. They included messages from my publicist; from a friend who’d arranged a reading for me at her community library; from a Boston Globe reporter doing a story on my book and me for an upcoming issue. There was a Google alert message for the keywords “Jane Roper” and “Double Time.”

I felt an almost physical sense of revulsion and embarrassment at the very existence of my book. How could I have written something so trite, so flimsy, and so unimportant? (The precious descriptions of the girls’ toddler antics, the stupid jokes about spilled breast milk…) Yes, the book goes into great detail on my struggles with depression, but even this seemed trivial — it didn’t threaten my life; it could be treated with medication, and successfully was — compared to the horror I faced now.

This feeling of shame was followed almost immediately by knife-sharp grief for everything contained in the book’s pages. Between those covers were my daughters’ first words and steps; their tantrums and mishaps; their soft, sleeping faces. On those pages, I’d described in loving detail the strange satisfaction of nursing my girls simultaneously; the secret feel of their eight-limbed movement inside my belly.

Although it was now a year and a half beyond where the book’s narrative ended, and although life changes fast as babies become toddlers become children, the days I described didn’t feel remote. We were still the family I wrote about in the book. Rather, we had been 18 hours earlier.

If recalling my book from the shelves had been possible, I would have set the process in motion that night.

5.
During our first days in the hospital, as we came to understand that we would not be leaving for several weeks while Clio completed the first, intensive phase of chemo, we canceled and revised work and personal obligations accordingly.

I bowed out of that upcoming library reading of Double Time — it was to have been the last stop on the modest “tour” I’d cobbled together for myself — unable to imagine standing before a group of people and reading from my book. Unable to imagine myself ever doing it again. I’d hoped and pushed for a paperback release of the book, but that seemed ridiculous now, too.

And then, two weeks into our hospital stay, the Boston Globe feature story I’d been interviewed for several weeks earlier — the day after Clio’s first visit to her pediatrician, in fact — was published. There I was with the girls on the cover of the Lifestyle pullout section in full color. In the photo, taken on our back porch, my nose is to my daughter Elsa’s cheek, my teeth bared in a silly grimace, while Clio sits at my feet.

She had cancer in that picture. It just hadn’t “broken out” yet.

Any author would have been thrilled to have their book covered in a major story in a major metropolitan paper. And I’d been thrilled, of course, several weeks earlier when I found out that it was going to happen. But now, all I felt was deflated — and (irrationally, I knew) guilty. As if I’d fabricated the whole story and gotten away with it. I felt none of the joy or pride that I’d imagined I would feel when it was published.

And when friends emailed to congratulate me on the story or posted links to it via various social media networks, I was embarrassed. I wanted to protest — no, no, no, please — like the person who genuinely hates being sung “happy birthday” to at restaurants.

I didn’t want the cake with the candle in it. I didn’t want any of it.

6.
Nine moths later, we have settled into the “new normal,” of life with cancer.

The treatments for childhood leukemias are protocolled, meaning that for each form of the disease there are specific courses of treatment. In Clio’s case, that means two and half years of chemo and medications, and frequent clinic visits and doctor appointments. She has a port-a-cath implanted in her chest for blood draws and administration of chemo, which will remain for the duration of her treatment. We have to be ever vigilant of germs, and a fever of 101 or above means an automatic hospitalization for antibiotics and tests.

Although we’ve had a few bumps in the road — a couple of rare, adverse reactions to her chemo, one of which landed Clio briefly in the intensive care unit — Clio is doing well. Our family is doing well, though of course Clio’s illness is a source of stress and worry. At the same time, I am working and writing and generally happy.

Meanwhile, a paperback version of my book is on the verge of being released. When Clio was first diagnosed I couldn’t imagine even wanting this to happen, let alone feeling excited or hopeful about it. If her prognosis were direr, the very idea of the book being resurrected in a new form would probably appall me.

Instead it’s simply strange, knowing that people will read the book having no idea that the lives of its protagonist (me) and the supporting cast have taken a dramatic turn.

Then again, all memoirs are obsolete by the time they’re published to some degree, especially if they describe the recent past, as was the case with mine. Our perceptions of our distant past are more static. But in the year or so (or more) between the time a recent-past memoir is completed and when it is released, the author is that much more emotionally removed from the events she describes. And her life may well have taken dramatic turns. I feel a certain kinship with Joan Didion, whose daughter died in the interim between the completion of her memoir about her experience of her husband’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking, and its publication.

I am asked on a regular basis if I plan to write a book about this new, perilous journey our family is on. Certainly the thought has occurred to me. But it will be some time until I know the answer definitively. Clio has another year and a half of treatment to go — assuming she does not relapse at any point along the way. Even if she does complete her treatment successfully, she will not be considered “cured” until she is disease-free for five years.

With an approximately 90 percent cure rate for her type of leukemia, the odds are entirely in her favor. So there’s a 90 percent chance that if I wrote a memoir about my experiences as a “cancer mom” prior to that five-year mark, the ending — an ending in which we are still a family of four — would still be true at the time of the book’s publication.

But for now, I’m holding that decision at bay, and trying my best to embrace the book I already wrote; trying to remind myself that everything contained within its pages is still valid and still true, despite how distant it may feel from the truth of my life now.

Elegy for a Grey Cat: On Grief, Books, and His Dark Materials

Zoe the Cat

1.
I recently got out of a three-year relationship with a cat. Her name was Zoe, and I got her from a shelter the first year I lived in Chicago. She was 10 or 11 when I got her, they weren’t sure, and she had a bevy of trust issues. The family who gave her to the shelter said she’d been bullied by a dog, but I call bullshit on that. Zoe was not afraid of dogs, she was afraid of people and plastic bags.

When I took her home for the first time, she ran into the closet and only came out to eat and use the litter box — only when I was gone — for two weeks. Gradually she warmed up to me. After a month she would sit nearby while I read. One evening, after two months, she sat in front of my chair for a while looking studiously at me and then, having made her decision, jumped into my lap for the first time. “Finally!” I shouted, which scared her and she ran away.

But soon after, and permanently, we were best friends. She followed me everywhere, slept next to my pillow, and greeted me at the door every night. She never warmed up to anyone else, though. When people came over she would hide for the majority of their visit. Sometimes I had catsitters who never saw her. She epitomized the cat that people describe when they roll their eyes and say they hate cats.

This was all fine with me. Her personality, her elegant apathy, and the way she would jump into dresser drawers when it rained, were my secrets, and I was the entirety of her universe. (Sometimes I would shout this at her if I couldn’t get her to stay still so I could brush her hair: “I’m the entirety of your universe!”)

Unironically loving a cat when you are a single woman is not socially savvy. Sometimes, when I would mention Zoe, I could see people wince as they tallied the facts in their head: bookish, lives alone, knits a lot, watches Charlie Rose. There’s a moment in an old MST3K episode where a cop in his squad car is dubbed to say, “Ehh, if I stop and get donuts I’ll just be reinforcing the stereotype.” That’s what it was like when I got a cat.

But I loved Zoe. I loved having six pounds of unconditional love waiting for me every time I came home, and why wouldn’t I? The sense remained, though, that loving a cat was something I should chiefly keep to myself. I could present her to the world in some absurd, deprecating fashion — pictures of her stuck under things, making human faces, like I kept her around as performance art — but the fact that she was a little creature who mattered to me enormously was too lame to admit.

2.
When I was five I went to afternoon kindergarten. After my brothers went to school in the morning, my mom would read to me from The Little House on the Prairie series. The Wilder family had a bulldog named Jack that went with them everywhere, protected them on several occasions, and was Laura’s first playmate. In the beginning of the fifth book, By the Shores of Silver Lake, Jack dies in his sleep. My mom didn’t know this was coming, and as she was reading she started skipping the more expository passage, and the description of the Wilder girls starting to cry. She thought she had made it vague enough that the truth wouldn’t sink in. But when she finished the chapter and closed the book, I looked at her and said, “Is Jack going to wake up?”

She went over to the phone, called the school, and said, “Janet isn’t coming to kindergarten today. She just learned about death.”

I thought a lot about this story in the past few weeks, as I realized Zoe was sick, and we tried a few treatments, and she kept getting worse. We’d had three cats when I was a kid, and they’d all exited our lives quite gracefully. Muffin fell asleep under a bush and died. Scratches died in an accident while I away visiting my grandparents. Skittles annoyed my mom so much that she eventually sent her to live on a farm. (I’ve given her many dignified opportunities to back of out this claim, but she maintains its truth.)

It became clear that the rest of Zoe’s life, or death, would have to be managed, and managed by me. It’s an agonizing process. Every decision felt selfish. It was heart-rending to have Zoe come sit on my lap while I was thinking about whether it was worthwhile to keep her alive.

Being the entirety of her universe, I was the only person who cared about Zoe, and I would be the only person to mourn her. My friends and family were wonderfully sympathetic, but what I needed was empathy. I needed a story to turn to, and I couldn’t think of one. For grief there’s A Year of Magical Thinking, for breakups there’s A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, but what could I read when I lost my cat? Cats usually show up in books as witches or set dressing for spinsters. I remembered the story of the Wilders’ bulldog, and there are certainly enough books for every dog situation, but I didn’t have a Marley, I had shy, loyal, damaged, affectionate Zoe. Then I thought of Philip Pullman.

3.
In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, each character has a dæmon. A dæmon is a visible extension of your soul standing beside you in animal form. Dæmons mimic the emotions of their humans, sleep when they sleep, and cannot be physically separated from them by more than a few yards. When you’re young your dæmon changes form depending on your mood, but at adolescence they “settle” into a permanent form. A particularly malicious character’s dæmon is a golden monkey, for instance, where a soldier might have a wolf. It’s considered grossly invasive to touch another person’s dæmon.

I’m not saying that Zoe was an extension of my soul. I am saying that we were unique to each other. Cats choose their people, unlike their more egalitarian canine counterparts, and don’t bother with anyone else. I tend to think that all she thought about all day was noises, whether or not she was cold, and where I was. This is why deciding to put her down felt so cruel, because I was the only thing she relied on and I gave up on her.

Pullman’s main character, Lyra, needs to travel to the underworld. The only way she can do this and survive is to leave her dæmon, Pantalaimon, behind, breaking the body-soul connection so that both halves will survive. It’s betrayal, selflessness, guilt, and grief all at once.

“Lyra was doing the cruellest thing she had ever done, hating herself, hating the deed, suffering for Pan and with Pan and because of Pan; trying to put him down on the cold path, disengaging his cat-claws from her clothes, weeping, weeping.”

I found this chapter in my copy of The Amber Spyglass and read it the afternoon I came home without Zoe. I felt as alone in grieving for Zoe as I had in loving her, and an old beloved book — magically, just like they’re supposed to — was the companion that understood.

Image courtesy of the author.

Grief, the Cruel and Fickle Muse

Grief, all of a sudden, is hot.  Books by authors who have lost a loved one are becoming so common they’re now a classifiable snowflake in the unending blizzard of memoirs.  They’re feeding “the increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market,” as Janet Maslin put it recently in the New York Times.  Writers who have lately mined their grief include Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Roiphe, Kate Braestrup and Joan Didion.  New grief memoirs are coming soon from Meghan O’Rourke and Francisco Goldman.  “In a way,” says Ruth Davis Konigsberg, author of a new non-fiction book called The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss, “we have become spectators and kind of consumers of other people’s grief.”

So what’s wrong with that?  Absolutely nothing – provided the writer, in laying bare this rawest of emotions, doesn’t withhold salient facts from the spectators.  But another question remains: Why are readers drawn to naked displays of suffering?  Is it mere voyeurism, or schadenfreude?  Or is something closer to empathy – a way of preparing ourselves for the unthinkable by witnessing the suffering of another?

To find answers, I decided to look at three literary couples in which one partner died unexpectedly and the other lived to tell about the experience and its aftermath.  Two of the writers withheld important facts and wound up producing inferior books; the writer who held nothing back produced a masterpiece.

Grief, it turns out, is not only a cruel muse.  She’s a fickle one as well.

1.
A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates: The editor Raymond Smith and the writer Joyce Carol Oates had been married for more than 47 years when he came down with a severe case of pneumonia and checked into a Princeton hospital, where he contracted a secondary infection and died on Feb. 18, 2008, at the age of 77.  Oates has just produced a memoir about events leading up to and following her husband’s death, a 417-page book that manages to feel both bloated and undernourished.

The bloat comes from several sources.  The book is simply too long, full of windy digressions and verbatim transcriptions of unenlightening emails.  (O, whatever happened to editors who know how to use a blue pencil?)  Worse, the writing is sloppy, and there’s no room for sloppiness in memoirs of this kind, which demand a scrupulous recreation of an extreme emotional state.  It’s little things – it’s always the little things – that reveal Oates’s sloppiness, then her lack of candor, and finally, fatally, her dishonesty.

She uses “ravished” instead of “ravaged,” for instance, and she reports that she and Ray once lived in Windsor, Ontario, where there was a “frigid wind blowing from the Detroit River, the massive lake beyond – Lake Michigan.”  As a matter of fact, the Detroit River connects Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie; Lake Michigan is some 200 miles to the west.  Do such trifles matter?  Yes, they do.

Then there are two seemingly small but ultimately telling moments that reveal just how unscrupulous and incurious Oates can be.  The first comes when doctors refine their original diagnosis and determine that Ray has contracted bacterial Escherichia coli – E. coli – pneumonia.  Oates, like many people, had been under the erroneous impression that E. coli bacteria come only from such sources as sewage-tainted water or fecal matter in food, and that they attack the gastro-intestinal system.  But such bacteria are found everywhere, a doctor tells her – “even in the interior of your mouth.”  Upon learning this, many people with a severely ill spouse would feel compelled to learn more about this surprising new enemy.  Not Oates.  She writes about herself in the third person: “In denial that her husband is seriously ill the Widow-to-Be will not, when she returns home that evening, research E. coli on the Internet.  Not for nearly eighteen months after her husband’s death will she look up this common bacterial strain to discover the blunt statement she’d instinctively feared at the time and could not have risked discovering: pneumonia due to Escherichia coli has a reported mortality rate of up to 70 percent.”  It’s hard for me to decide if such a lack of curiosity is touching, forgivable, or just monstrously self-absorbed.

The second telling moment comes after her husband has died and Oates, who has already exhibited a lack of interest in unpleasant truths, declines to have an autopsy performed.  She writes:

I think I remember having been asked at the medical center if I wanted Ray’s body autopsied.  In whatever haze of confusion at the time quickly I’d said no.

No!  No.

Could not bear it.  The thought of Ray’s body being mutilated.

I know! – the body is not the man.  Not “Ray.”

And yet – where else had “Ray” resided, except in that body?

It was a body I knew intimately, and loved.  And so I did not want it mutilated.

Now, I will never know if these “causes” of his death are accurate, or complete.  I will never know with certainty.

This passage reveals two more of the book’s flaws – the shallow insights and the choppy writing, strewn with random quotation marks and exclamation points.

Yet A Widow’s Story is not without virtues.  Oates can be very amusing, as when she expresses her loathing for “sympathy gift baskets” stuffed with “peach butter, Russian caviar and pates of the most lurid kinds.”  She can be poignant when describing her battles with insomnia and a growing dependence on prescription drugs, a severe case of shingles, her recurring thoughts of suicide, her nagging fear that she never knew her husband.  And finally there’s a beautiful moment when Ray’s cardiologist, who was not the attending physician in the hospital, glosses over the distinct possibility that the staff’s poor performance might be grounds for a malpractice suit.  “Maybe – Ray was just tired,” the cardiologist speculates.  “Maybe he just gave up…”  Oates, justifiably, flies into a rage at this suggestion that her husband’s death was somehow his own fault.  Anyone who has ever been confronted with the incompetence and arrogance of the medical profession will cheer the widow’s fury.

But the inclusion of such raw moments can’t make up for the book’s major – and fatal – omission.  While Oates mentions that it took her a year and a half to erase her husband’s voice from their telephone answering machine, she neglects to mention that within 11 months of his death she was engaged to a neuroscientist named Dr. Charles Gross, and they were married in 2009.  Once you know this, the distance between Lake Michigan and Windsor, Ontario, and the difference between “ravished” and “ravaged” no longer seem like trifles.  Oates, in other words, has written the most dishonest kind of book there is – one that purports to serve up raw emotions but doesn’t have the discipline to stick to the facts or the honesty to reveal the most basic of truths.

Even Oates seems to know this.  “As the memoir is the most seductive of literary genres, so the memoir is the most dangerous of genres,” she writes.  “For the memoir is a repository of truths, as each discrete truth is uttered, but the memoir can’t be the repository of Truth which is the very breadth of the sky, too vast to be perceived in a single gaze.”

Only someone capable of writing such muzzy sentences could produce such a deeply dishonest book.  Or maybe it’s simpler than that.  Maybe the word machine Oates refers to as “JCO” was shrewdly hoarding this fresh material.  Maybe she’s already at work on a new memoir called A Newlywed’s Story. And why not?  A Widow’s Story hit the New York Times best-seller as soon as it was published.

2.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion: The celebrated writers John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion had been married for almost 40 years when they sat down to dinner in their New York apartment on the evening of Dec. 30, 2003.  In mid-sentence Dunne slumped in his chair and tumbled to the floor, dead from a massive heart attack.  At the time the couple’s only daughter, Quintana, was unconscious in the intensive care unit of a nearby hospital, suffering from flu that had exploded into pneumonia, then septic shock.  The first words Didion wrote after her husband’s death would become the opening lines of her 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking:

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.

“If you want to write about yourself,” Didion once said, “you have to give them something.”  In The White Album, her 1979 essay collection, she gave us the story of how she went blind for six weeks from multiple sclerosis.  She gave us the story of checking herself into a psychiatric clinic.  She even gave us the doctor’s diagnosis: “Patient’s thematic productions emphasize her fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic and depressive view of the world around her…”

After Dunne’s death, Didion insisted on an autopsy, which, as Joyce Carol Oates demonstrated, is not a universal demand of the bereaved.  My father also decided against an autopsy when my mother died, apparently from a heart attack, alone at home at the age of 57.  “What good will an autopsy do?” my father asked.  “She’ll still be dead.”  I was working as a newspaper reporter at the time, and I believed I had a high regard for the truth.  “Yes,” I argued, “but at least we’ll know for sure why she died.”  Was her death a suicide, an accidental overdose, the result of a drunken fall?  There was no autopsy.  I’m convinced I’ll go to my own grave angry that I’ll never know for sure what put my mother in hers.

Didion understands this anger and she knows how to avoid it.  “I actively wanted an autopsy,” she writes, “even though I had seen some, in the course of doing research.  I knew exactly what occurs, the chest open like a chicken in a butcher’s case, the face peeled down, the scale in which the organs are weighed.  I had seen homicide detectives avert their eyes from an autopsy in progress.  I still wanted one.  I needed to know how and why and when it had happened.”  Small wonder that an attendant in the hospital where Dunne was pronounced dead described his widow as “a pretty cool customer.”

A friend once likened Dunne and Didion to another literary couple, the famously stoic Leonard Woolf and his brilliant, troubled wife Virginia – but with a twist.  (More on the Woolfs in a moment.)  “John does not play Leonard Woolf to (Didion’s) Virginia,” the friend said.  “John may seem strident and tough, but what you see in John you get in Joan.  She is every bit as tough as he is.”  Another friend described Didion as “a fragile, little stainless-steel machine.”

One aspect of her grief that bedeviled Didion was how ordinary the events were that led up to her husband’s death, which prevented her from believing it had happened and, in turn, made it maddeningly difficult for her to get past it.  “I recognize now,” she writes, “that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy.”

Some people might find all this – the falling plane, the burning car, the lunging rattlesnake – melodramatic, overly pessimistic and fatalistic, even laughable.  Based on what I’ve seen of the world, I find it wise.  What I’ve seen includes looking out my livingroom window on a clear blue September morning and seeing an orange fireball as United Airlines Flight 175 slashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center.  Then I watched the two burning towers fall.  These events interrupted my reading of the newspaper.

To deal with her grief, Didion did what she had been trained to do since childhood, what most writers do in times of duress: she went to the literature because “information is power.”  She found the literature on grief surprisingly sparse.  There was C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a passage from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, some poetry, some unhelpful self-help books.  So Didion, the relentless reporter, turned more fruitfully to the medical literature – Freud, Melanie Klein, the Merck Manual, the British Medical Journal.  Then she made the belated discovery that Dunne’s 1982 novel Dutch Shea, Jr. was actually about the kind of grief she was experiencing, the “complicated” kind.  She finally found some solace, implausibly, in Emily Post’s 1922 book on etiquette, which includes pointers on how to treat the newly bereaved.

Didion then does something almost unthinkable.  She dives deeper, chronicling the harrowing ups and downs of her daughter’s illness, which culminate in emergency neurosurgery after Quintana collapses and her pupils become fixed and dilated.  Didion researches the significance of fixed and dilated pupils, or “FDPs,” and learns that they’re almost always a harbinger of death.  She even does the math and learns that her daughter has a two percent chance of making a full recovery.

This last act – getting the facts, doing the math – strikes me as the perfect way to distinguish between a writer like Joan Didion, the cool customer, the fragile little stainless-steel machine, and a writer like Joyce Carol Oates, the word machine who couldn’t abide to see her dead husband’s body “mutilated,” who couldn’t be bothered to learn the mortality rate of E. coli pneumonia, and who didn’t, for whatever reason, bother to mention that she had fallen in love with another man.

Once her daughter’s condition begins to improve, Didion is able to move beyond the paralysis of her grief over John’s death, which is to say she begins to mourn, then heal.  After seven dreamless months she begins to dream again.  She stops believing John will come back.  She stops believing she was in some way responsible for his death, or that she could have averted it.  By October she has begun to write The Year of Magical Thinking, and though she’s usually a slow writer she finishes it in just 88 days, a year and a day after her husband died.

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” she concludes.  “Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”

When the book was nearing publication the following summer, Didion told an interviewer, “What I want to do as soon as I get through this…all of this…is basically to be too busy.  Take too much work.  I figure that will get me through.”

A month later Didion’s daughter, her immune system worn out from fighting infections, died from pancreatitis at the age of 39.  The Year of Magical Thinking became an immediate best-seller and won the National Book Award.

3.
The Journey Not the Arrival Matters by Leonard Woolf: It would be difficult to imagine a book more unlike Didion’s than The Journey Not the Arrival Matters, the fifth and final volume of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography.  It covers the years from 1939, when the Second World War engulfed Europe, to 1969, when the author died at the age of 88.  The first half of the book is called “Virginia’s Death,” and it does flit around the events leading up to March 28, 1941, the day Woolf’s mad genius of a wife filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse.

But the title “Virginia’s Death,” like so much of this book, is misleading and disingenuous.  This long chapter dwells less on Virginia’s suicide than on the coming madness of the war and the ways it altered the Woolfs’ long and mostly happy marriage.  One change, surprisingly, was that when the couple was forced to retreat to their rural Sussex home, Monks House, after their London apartment was shattered by a German bomb, their lives slipped into a pleasing, productive, almost dreamy rhythm.  Away from the epicenter of the blitz, rid of servants and a social life, they were free to work and garden and simply be.  Leonard called it “pleasant monotony,” and the effect on Virginia, who suffered from periodic bouts of depression and had twice attempted suicide, was salutary.

On Oct. 12, 1940, she wrote in her diary: “How free, how peaceful we are.  No one coming.  No servants.  Dine when we like.  Living near to the bone.  I think we’ve mastered life pretty competently.”  Two days later she added, “If it were not treasonable to say so, a day like this is almost too – I won’t say happy; but amenable…  And one thing’s ‘pleasant’ after another: breakfast, writing, walking, tea, bowls, reading, sweets, bed.”  Such a regimen is, for any serious writer, a definition of heaven.  Five months later, after leaving Leonard a note that concluded with “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been,” Virginia walked into the river.

Any writer of autobiography who has lived through such a trauma should – must – explore the ensuing grief and how he dealt with it, or didn’t.  Woolf does this, fitfully, in the book’s second half, claiming that two things saw him through the aftermath of his wife’s suicide.  The first was “the inveterate, the immemorial fatalism of the Jew.”  The second was something familiar to both Oates and Didion.  “Work,” he writes, “is the most efficient anodyne – after death, sleep, or chloroform – for pain, whether the pain be in your great toe, your tooth, your head, or your heart.”

So Leonard Woolf got busy.  But instead of exploring the contours of his grief, he gives us tedious digressions about his work with the Fabian Society and the Labour Party, the Political Quarterly, the Nation and the New Statesman, the running of Hogarth Press, including lists of titles published.  He makes only passing mention of two new Sussex neighbors, a business partner named Ian Parsons and his attractive wife Trekkie, an artist and book jacket designer: “In the last three years of the war we had become intimate friends….  In the last year of the war, when Ian was in the Air Force in France, Trekkie stayed with me (at Monks House), and I had helped to negotiate the lease of a house for them in (nearby) Iford into which they moved as soon as Ian was demobilized.”

What Woolf fails to mention is that within months of Virginia’s suicide he and Trekkie had embarked on an affair that would endure through the remaining 28 years of his life.  They spent weekdays together, then Trekkie went home to her husband on weekends.  Ian and Trekkie were still in love and they danced beautifully together and threw lively parties, at which he played the banjo.  Under Trekkie’s influence, Leonard started drinking more than he had when Virginia was alive.  He gave Trekkie gifts – a Constable sketch, a Rembrandt etching, jewelry.  Leonard’s relationship with Trekkie, like his marriage to Virginia, was apparently sexless.  Yet in their letters Trekkie was Leonard’s “dearest tiger” and he was her “greedy sparrow.”  A year after Virginia’s suicide, Leonard wrote to Trekkie, “To know and love you has been the best thing in my life.”

You’ll find none of the above in Woolf’s autobiography.  It comes from Victoria Glendinning’s balanced and well received Leonard Woolf: A Biography, published in 2006, and from Love Letters: Leonard Woolf and Trekkie Ritchie Parsons, 1941-1968, published in 2001.

Is this reticence, this pretense at probity, an English thing – stiff upper lip and all that rot?  Or is it something simpler and more venal – dishonesty masquerading as discretion?  Whatever it is, or is not, Woolf is guilty of the autobiographer’s cardinal sin: a killing lack of the candor that readers of such books have come to expect, and which they deserve.  Certainly Woolf was entitled to his happiness after the suffering he had endured in his marriage, just as Oates was entitled to fall in love and remarry less than a year after her husband’s death.  But to omit such central facts from a memoir of grief strikes me as the worst kind of failure, a breach of the writer’s contract with the reader.  It is, in short, a lie.

All three of these memoirs, as different as they are, share a common thread.  Voyeurs looking to revel in another’s agony will be disappointed because these three memoirists demonstrate that, yes, there is plenty of agony after the death of a loved one, but we possess remarkable tools for dealing with it.  Loss may be permanent, but grief, it turns out, is not.  The unthinkable is not invincible.

If there is indeed an “increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market” out there today – and the evidence suggests that there is – we should be grateful we have writers like Joan Didion who possess the courage and the talent to feed it.  She, unlike Joyce Carol Oates and Leonard Woolf, understands that if you want to write about yourself, you have to give them something.  Actually, Didion understands a far larger and deeper and darker truth.  She understands that if you want to write about your grief, you have to give them everything.

(Image: 106/365 The soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone from myklroventine’s photostream)

Death and the Small Screen: Sean Manning’s The Things That Need Doing

I found out about the death of my father in the middle of a syndicated triple-shot of Three’s Company.

As was usually the case on the late 1970s–early ’80s sitcom, Jack Tripper — played with aplomb by the physical comedic genius John Ritter — was in the middle of a misunderstanding; in this particular episode, it involved an older, attractive female cooking student and her rich husband. I didn’t get to see the resolution because mom walked through the door of the neighbors’ before the third act.

I was at the neighbors’ instead of home because my mother and sister had been at the hospital, where, hours before, dad was taken for a heart attack. Mom didn’t need to say a word when I anxiously asked after dad. She pursed her lips, furrowed her brow and lowered her head. I was not yet ten years old at the time but sophisticated enough to read her body language. Dad was dead.

I spent the next 20 minutes or so in an uncontrollable wail, much of which I don’t remember as I was blind and disoriented with tears and emotion. What I do remember is coming to on the green couch in front of the television set in the family living room. As I sniffled and cleared my bloodshot eyes, the first thing I saw was Jack Tripper — there he was again. He was trying to convince Mr. Roper that what looked like a near in flagrante moment with a woman was indeed not.

I’m not sure if a smirk was visible on my face, but I remember being entertained by the bit and, more important, comforted in the knowledge that the grief would have its moments of respite.

On the surface, the low culture of Three’s Company would appear to cheapen such a grave moment as the death of a father, but it’s what gave me the numbness to endure.

In The Things That Need Doing, a new memoir about a late-20-something dealing with the slow death of his beloved, hospital-ridden mother, Sean Manning finds similar distraction in the seemingly meaningless late-American din that surrounds us. After all, when going through something as serious and as soul-touching as the death of the woman that bore you, reading Marcel Proust — let alone Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking — is just not going to happen.

In the book’s opening paragraph, Manning sets the tone when he’s reminded to wish his sick mother “happy birthday” not by the hospital clock striking midnight, but by the end credits of Home Improvement giving way to the opening theme song for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. You can hear Will Smith’s syncopated nursery-rhyme rap in the background — West Philadelphia Born and Raised, On the playground is where I spent most of my days — as Manning leans in to whisper “happy birthday” into his mother’s ear.

What unfolds is a seemingly endless (more than a year) barrage of futile medical procedures battling the aftermath of a heart attack and a growing cancer in Manning’s mother. It’s an ugly existence peopled with arrogant doctors, bureaucratic health administrators and lame attempts at trying to hide hospital equipment (the constant reminders of failing health). Upon this plastic, unfeeling canvas, Manning manages to paint a moving portrait of a broken family becoming whole again as they put their respective lives on indefinite hold — come recovery or, as Manning has to increasingly accept, death.

But rather than tackle it head on — even his obsession with the details of his mother’s medical procedures seems like a method of dealing — Manning comes at it from the side, getting at the painful reality of the suffering through the soft lens of the television set in the background. To wit:

Seriously, how awful must it have been to be hospitalized before TV? … I can’t even imagine how much more miserable those five nights to end February and begin March would’ve been without Nick at Nite. The bed fully upright. Flipping over her forehead washcloth after ten minutes and refreshing it every twenty. Her chin resting on the paper bucket, it trembling in her hands. The gagging and heaving coming every ten, fifteen minutes. The tube feed long shut off, nothing left but viscous green stomach acid that I’d wipe from her lips and chin with tissues. With another balled-up wad, wiping away her tears. And the whole time her eyes fixed on the one-hour, two-hour, sometimes all-night blocks of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Cosby Show, Home Improvement and Roseanne. The volume on the handset turned up as loud as it’d go.

Manning reveals how the small screen acts as a panacea, but more important, as a reminder of the world outside. Death and dying are big moments in life, moments that are near unbearable. It’s comforting to know that the world does and will keep revolving as we go through them. In modernity, sometimes it’s the dulcet tones of bad television that tell us so.

The odd byproduct is when these seemingly meaningless TV shows take on a Proustian quality. To this day, viewing a John Ritter pratfall brings me back to the day my father died, much like Will Smith in a flat-top haircut will surely do for Manning.

A Year in Reading: Edan Lepucki

Edan Lepucki is a regular contributor to The Millions, and her short fiction will soon be appearing in Avery and the Los Angeles Review.An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken. McCracken’s memoir is, as the New York Times puts it, “an unstinting account of the novelist’s emotions after the stillbirth of her first child.” It’s also about the happiness she experienced before the tragedy, when she was pregnant in an old farmhouse in the south of France, and the happiness she feels now as the mother of a second, healthy child, even as the death of her first child remains an indelible fact. It’s about grief: how it never fades, never heals, even as life continues. Like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, the book’s structure bears the confusion and enormity of this grief – it cannot, will not, follow chronologically. McCracken’s memoir was the most moving book I read this year.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan. I’ve written about this terrific novel before, calling it “equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical and sad,” and I’ll write about it again because I enjoyed it so much. Egan’s scenes are intricate and entertaining, her sentences enviable, surprising, and buttery smooth. She is one of my new favorite writers.The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen. In the fantasy-version of my life, I grow a garden outside my one-bedroom apartment, I compost, I make my own bread, I can food and prepare my own jelly, and I’m not too cowardly to ride a bike on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Thankfully, I now have this handbook to show me how to become such a person. Coyne and Knutzen live and farm just two neighborhoods away from my own, and their accessible guide to “revolutionary home economics” and “livestock in the city,” is not only inspiring, it’s also practical and useful. This time next year, I might even own a goat or two…More from A Year in Reading 2008

Wednesday Links: Honorary Awards; Scottish Flood; Book Sale

Joan Didion and NPR uber-interviewer Terry Gross will be honored at the National Book Awards ceremony in November. Dideon won a National Book Award in 2005 for her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking.The National Library of Scotland flooded yesterday thanks to a faulty sprinkler system. It was a close call: “Some modern books and manuscripts suffered ‘surface’ water damage, but all of the ‘important, iconic’ books were saved.”Oops! A church in England sold some rare tomes for modest though still substantial sum to a book dealer, only to find, too late, that they are worth much, much more.

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