In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion picks on Didion.

Behind the scenes.
April 4 2007 1:49 PM

Didion v. Didion

In The Year of Magical Thinking, the writer picks on herself.

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Redgrave's vigorous portrayal also opposes the flat, clinical voice that haunts the book. One wishes that Redgrave and director David Hare had found a means of theatrically telegraphing Didion's detached sensibility. Calista Flockhart's benumbed, almost affectless performance in Neil LaBute's Bash! several years ago comes to mind; or, more recently, Meryl Streep's restrained turn as the frosty, unflappable Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Didion should have been played slightly less demonstratively, with a bit more subtlety and, it might be said, control.

But this is not the only incongruity created by the peculiar rendering of the character. That in the play Didion reproaches herself for her exacting nature—Why do you always have to be right?—also seems bizarre. If ever there was a situation in which an enthusiasm for accuracy and a propensity to manage one's circumstances might prove useful, it is that which she confronted.Onstage, Didion remarks that she memorized the names of the many drugs administered to her unconscious daughter in the ICU, that she learned the terms for the various antibiotic-resistant (and often lethal) hospital infections. She marvels at her compulsion to correct the orderly responsible for transporting her daughter across the country in a helicopter when, while flying over Nevada, he snaps photos of what he calls "the Grand Canyon." But is such behavior so remarkable in any mother? And, perhaps more relevantly, in any writer? What writer would not want to gather the facts and know exactly what happened? In the memoir, Didion criticizes the doctors for their ineptitude, the grief "experts" for their sweeping assumptions, and her own self for her magical thinking and failure to appreciate certain moments with Dunne. But she does not berate herself for her fastidiousness. And why should she? Her supposedly neurotic desire for control looks very much like coping. (Quintana died in August 2005, a year and a half after Dunne, and the play, unlike the memoir, treats her death at length.)

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So why write her theatrical counterpart in this vein? For humor, perhaps. Some of her nitpicky moments provide a welcome respite from the somber material of the play. Then, too, stressing the character's punctiliousness is a way of underscoring the somewhat facile message of the play: We cannot control what happens to our loved ones; we cannot bring the dead back or make the sick well; we must let them go. But it may also be that Didion bestows her character with concrete but general qualities to avoid confessing anything concrete about herself.

It is interesting that Didion has chosen to paint herself as some kind of control freak, particularly in a work that is arguably the least controlled of her career. In the play, the language is fairly loose-limbed. She is also more forthcoming than usual, telling us that she and Dunne sometimes walked out on each other; and that during one particularly nasty fight, about a film he wanted to quit, he sped up the Pacific Coast Highway in her Corvette. (For Didion, this is a lot of personal detail.) One wonders whether such candor made her nervous, if her rigid self-characterization is a way of tightening the reins, of dramatizing herself while giving little away.

One also has the sense that, three years later, she may have looked back on her book and viewed her actions in a harsher light. "This is about the speaker discovering that she is completely powerless, that the control she so prizes is nonexistent," she wrote of the play in the New York Times. "I had never before thought of myself as a person prizing control. Only when I saw the play performed did I see that character clear, and I also saw her in the mirror." Perhaps, then, the critical self-portrait that ultimately emerges from the play is an implicit criticism of the self she wrote into the memoir. Because for a writer, the chance to update a book—and the play is more update than adaptation—is the ultimate occasion to exercise one's control. To update a memoir in particular is as close to an opportunity to manipulate the past, to control events, as any writer may get.

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