16 May 2007

Love, Truly Love: On three mournful, magic books



OF COURSE THERE ARE THOUGHTS, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU ARE UPSET, distraught, that don't find words, ones where you don't seek words. But when someone can place things so, just so, in simplest terms, the effect is magical. (Cf., "Jesus wept.")

There are highly stylized American writers whose sentences sing--Pynchon or DeLillo--or twang--Ford, Hannah--or bash into landscape and appetite and wounded heart--Jim Harrison--but Joan Didion I have admired for being spectral while specific, an artist of the social X-ray who makes of sentences chill transparencies. When I first heard of "The Year of Magical Thinking," (Vintage, $13.95) the story of her grief and disorientation after the death of John Gregory Dunne, her husband and collaborator of almost forty years, alongside the serious illness of daughter Quintana Roo Dunne, I wanted very much to read what she had wrought of the most intimate of material, even more impressed on learning that Quintana had died in the months since the book had been composed, a fact which Didion considered outside the subject of her book, which was the death of her husband, the still after what was shared had ended. I also wanted not to read it, not to glimpse the diamond of her hurt. But the paperback was twenty percent off...

Didion writes of the fire she lit in their Manhattan apartment the night of December 30, 2003, "a Tuesday." She and John will eat in. "I grew up in California. John and I lived together for twenty-four years, in California we heated our houses by building fires. We built fires even on summer evenings, because the fog came in. Fires said we were home, we had drawn the circle, we were safe through the night. I lit the candles. John asked for a second drink before sitting down. I gave it to him. We sat down. My attention was on mixing the salad.

"John was talking, then he wasn't." Page ten and I am ruint. Two hundred seventeen to go and I am a wreck. The sustenance of moment and motion, not frozen, active, yet present in the instant of abrupt absence: "My attention was on mixing the salad."

"Marriage is memory. Marriage is time," Didion sketches. Readers for decades glimpsed Didion as the clear-eyed neurasthenic, the waif of iron, the delicate reed that wavers yet sounds. And now she writes truly of herself and in a voice deeper, farther than, for instance, this passage in "The White Album": maybe you need to have sat in a lot of drive-ins yourself, to have gone to school with boys who majored in shop and worked in gas stations and later held them up," figures "whose whole lives are an obscure grudge against a world they think they never made."

A similar memoir by an equally exacting writer was published in 2006, "About Alice," (Random House, $14.95) by Calvin Trillin, with the immemorial, much-repeated passage from a condolence letter from a young woman in New York, in which she held Calvin and Alice up against her own relationship. "But will he love me like Calvin loved Alice?" These are more than chronicles of simple uxorial devotion. These are the necessary emotional alliances that society may insist are formed by contract and codicil, but are in fact formed by fortune, repetition, proximity, devotion, attention, precision and heart.

A third in this besorrowed genre is Chicagoan Anders Nilsen's heartbreaking "Don't Go Where I Can't Follow," (D&Q, $17.95) which in its own brief form hits as hard as Didion's masterful recollection of loss. It is a collage, a scrapbook, a memoir; a testament, a legacy, a tragedy, a motley collage and a shattering gem I've returned to several times. The book came unannounced with several other Drawn & Quarterly graphic novels, and it was the most modest-looking in the pile. A milky SX-70 Polaroid on the front--Nilsen putting his cheek up against that of girlfriend Cheryl Weaver while sitting on a couch--another on the back, the flash is terrible, they're kissing in a kitchen. Inside, evidence of travels by the Chicago couple: postcards from Weaver tracking the start of their romance. A twenty-one-page short story the young Nilsen wrote to his sister from camp, reproduced from spiral-bound, ruled pages. More snaps. Stubs of flight passes. Sketchbook jottings. Photos of a shared trip to France, frames largely unpeopled. Notes and sketches about Weaver, by now Nilsen's fiancée, entering the hospital after an abrupt diagnosis. More illustration. Postcards from him to her. Two pages of handwritten illumination of what we've seen. Grave and glorious, life affirming and love affirming, "Don't Go" vibrates in its ungainly form, capturing fleeting time as a shoebox of family pictures might suggest decades of life, a romance stilled suddenly by the worst of adversity, mortal illness. Feelings don't go away. Forster wrote that literature is what happens next. Next is predicated on previous. Raw emotions are transformed by observance and love, into memory and art.

These three books are about lives that were shared, bonds that were made, then smashed. Love, and love, truly love. Cycles of memory and the cordon of routine protect Didion from undue contemplation that year. A refrain amid her refrains: "I had not sufficiently appreciated it."

Do any of us ever until after?

[Originally published in a slightly different form at Newcity, 27 April 2007.]