Joan Didion is "possibly the best living American essayist and probably the most influential," wrote New York magazine columnist Boris Kacha in his 2011 column on Didion's work.
"Reading Joan Didion on any subject is like tiptoeing across a just-frozen pond filled with beautiful sharks," wrote Kacha. "You look down and pray the ice will hold."
The ice didn't always hold, not in Didion's nation, city or neighborhood – and not in her personal life.
In "Blue Nights," a memoir, Didion wrote of the prolonged illnesses and death, at the age of 39, of her adopted daughter.
In "The Year of Magical Thinking," an earlier memoir, she wrote of her emotional dislodgment after the sudden death of her husband, writer John Dunne.
"Ms. Didion's husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, sat down to dinner in their Manhattan apartment, then abruptly slumped over and fell to the floor," reported Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. "He was pronounced dead – of a massive heart attack – later in the evening."
Wrote Ms. Didion, a few days later: "Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."
In Didion's writing, there was always been a fascination with what she once called "'the unspeakable peril of the everyday' – the coyotes by the interstate, the snakes in the playpen, the fires and Santa Ana winds of California," wrote Kakutani. "In the past, that peril often seemed metaphorical, a product of a theatrical imagination and a sensibility attuned to the emotional and existential fault lines running beneath society's glossy veneer; it was personal but it was abstract."
With Dunne's death, the sensibility attuned to the fault lines was still personal but no longer abstract. Didion, witnessing the swift collapse of the glossy veneer at her dinner table, was, said Kakutani, "like those who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks of 9/11." And like those "who have lost friends and family members in car accidents, airplane crashes and other random acts of history, Ms. Didion instantly saw ordinary life morph into a nightmare," according to Kakutani. "She saw a shared existence with shared rituals and shared routines shatter into a million irretrievable pieces."
In "The Year of Magical Thinking," Didion writes of the year she spent coming to terms with the death of her husband – and, as Kakutani summarized it, coming to terms "about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity."
"The Year of Magical Thinking," wrote Kakutani, "is an utterly shattering book that tells us how people try to make sense of the senseless and how they somehow go on," a book "that provides a haunting portrait of an extraordinarily close relationship between two writers, who both worked at home and who kept each other company almost 24 hours a day, editing each other's work, completing and counterpointing each other's thoughts."
As Didion explained: "I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response."
Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics and the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.
Ralph R. Reiland