Today’s Wall Street Journal column is devoted in its entirety to my review of the new stage version of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I hated it:
It surprised when Joan Didion published “The Year of Magical Thinking,” for I identified her so completely with California in the ’60s that I’d almost forgotten she was still alive. Of course she continued to publish–a fat volume of her collected essays came out last fall–but somehow I had come to see her as a figure from the distant past, a chronicler of strange days for which I felt no nostalgia whatsoever. Then her daughter got sick and her husband died of a heart attack and she wrote a best-seller about it, and all at once she was back….
I found it hard to shake off the disquieting sensation that Ms. Didion, for all the obvious sincerity of her grief, was nonetheless functioning partly as a grieving widow and partly as a celebrity journalist who had chosen to treat the death of John Gregory Dunne as yet another piece of grist for her literary mill. All the familiar features of her style, hardened into slick, self-regarding mannerism after years of constant use, were locked into place and running smoothly, and I felt as though I were watching a piece of performance art, or reading a cover story in People: Joan Didion on Grief….
Would that the stage version of “The Year of Magical Thinking” were an improvement on the book, but it isn’t. In one way it’s much worse, for it starts off with a speech that has all the subtlety of the proverbial blunt object: “This happened on December 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago but it won’t when it happens to you. And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you. That’s what I’m here to tell you.” Why on earth did David Hare, the stage-savvy director, let Ms. Didion get away with so crude and undramatic a gesture? If the rest of the play doesn’t make that point, nothing will.
Nor did Mr. Hare insist that his debutante author (this is Ms. Didion’s first play) ram a theatrical spine down the back of her fugitive reflections on death and dying. As a seasoned playwright, he should have known better. “The Year of Magical Thinking” doesn’t go anywhere–it just goes and goes, inching from scene to scene, and when Ms. Didion finally gets around to telling us an hour and a half later what she learned from the loss of her husband and daughter, it turns out to be a string of portentously worded platitudes…
To read the rest, buy a copy of today’s Journal or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to my column, plus the rest of the paper’s extensive arts coverage.
UPDATE: The Journal has just posted a free link to this review. To read it, go here.