Last night at the 92nd Street Y, Joan Didion read from her new book, The Year of Magical Thinking, and then took questions from the audience. After the introduction, in which the speaker once again spoke that most famous line from The White Album, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," Joan walked out to the podium in a black jacket and black skirt.
She is a tiny woman--that's not a new idea; she's written about her physical appearance a lot over the years--and I thought that maybe it was hard to find clothes that fit her; the jacket seemed a bit too large, and so different from the I.Magnin get-ups her heroines (are they heroines?) so often wear. Then she opened the book and began to read.
The Year of Magical Thinking is so textbook Didion that it almost leans toward parody; the first paragraph deals with the date and time the file "notes on change.doc" was last modified on her computer. And yet, it it rings so utterly true and original, so deeply personal that it feels like a completely new genre. As if with this book she has finally proven what she always believed to be true: "...that meaning itself [is] resident in the rythms of words and sentences." Joan writes at one point about the "shallowness of sanity," about how eight months after John's death she realized that for most of that time she had been--quite literally--crazy.
I recognized that madness.
During Meg's memorial, one of the people who spoke seemed to miss the point all together--and I remember thinking that I could not wait to get home to New York so that I could call Meg and tell her what sort of ridiculousness went down in her honor. And when I was in Meg's apartment, cleaning out her drawers, parcelling out her clothing and keepsakes to people who I thought might, too, hold some meaning in objects, I thought that Meg had installed invisible video cameras in the corners, and that later, or even from a dark room behind a false door, she was watching, making notes, critiquing our behavior. I knew this was true even as I recognized the insanity of it.
When Joan was finished (she read the first 22 pages) she closed the book, said "Thank you," and walked off the stage. She returned a moment later. "I forgot the question and answer part," she said. "Sorry."
The questions, taken from notecards submitted from the audience, were mainly lukewarm: "How did you get your start in journalism?" "I backed into it," she answered. "I was working at Vogue and occasionally they needed a piece written and so I wrote it." Next question: "How is writing fiction different or similar to writing non-fiction." "It's not that different," she said. "I think people who do them both don't regard one as more important than the other." The moderator then remarked, "And I suppose there are deadlines in journalism whereas fiction is rather open-ended." Joan deadpanned, "Yeah," failed to extrapolate on that idea, left it at that, and the audience laughed. Another question: "Did publishing this book change the way you thought about grief?" he asked. Joan didn't hesitate, "Writing it changed the way I thought about it."
She talked for a moment about John toward the end. "I knew him about as well as you can know a person," she said. "But there are still some questions that I don't think I could answer for him."
There was a very long line for the booksigning, though it moved quickly. She sat behind a desk in the art gallery, now wearing a pale blue scarf wrapped around her neck, and her trademark huge glasses set to her side. Barnes & Noble was selling the new book, along with paperbacks of Where I Was From and Vintage Didion. Most people had those, but there were a few older books peeking out of purses here and there.
I slid my copies of Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Play It As It Lays across to her. "Thank you, Joan," I said. And she looked up, "Oh, and thank you," she said. She signed the first, smaller than most of my other signatures, with less force on the page. And I noticed she had her purse lying across her lap. Then she signed the second. "Thank you," I said again, and walked away.