I Am Big. It's the Pictures That Got Small

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27 December 2005

National Book Award Winners

I've been a little remiss in noting the National Book Award winners: As I called it, W.S. Merwin won for Migration and Joan Didion for The Year of Magical Thinking.

For Merwin, the judges noted:
The poems in Migration speak from a life-long belief in the power of words to awaken our drowsy souls and see the world with compassionate interconnection. In moments of self-awakening that might be roused by ambulance sirens from St. Vincent’s Hospital, or the rustle of a weasel in the wall of a French farmhouse, these poems offer us a place in the world where the ordinary becomes extraordinary, where “the pain of learning what is lost/is transformed into light at last.”

They got it right.

For Didion, the judges noted:
The Year of Magical Thinking is a masterpiece in two genres: memoir and investigative journalism. The subject of the memoir is the year after the sudden death of the writer's husband. The target of the investigation, though, is the nature of folly and time. The writer attends to details, assembles a chronology, and asks hard questions of the witnesses, most notably herself. But she imagines that the story she tells can be revised, the world righted, her husband returned, alive. What she offers is an unflinching journey into intimacy and grief.

This assessment is only about half-right. Investigative journalism? Unfortunately, Didion has long been called a "New Journalist," which might have been applicable in just a few of her essays. Really bad critics describe what she brought into journalism was the opportunity to include the self as an occasional reference point: this is most frequently tied to her essays in The White Album, specifically when she mentions that she is contemplating a divorce while in Hawai'i, or that she she is in vertigo-stricken moment of anxiety. Thus, critics go on about the autobiographical nature of her own writing.

What astonishes me about her work is how little she does write about herself. Yes, we do get the surpising asides, but in a work like Where I Was From, Didion reveals little about her own life. She may note some of its artifacts, but the impulse is to provide a critical example, not confession. The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion's most conventionally autobiographical work, as she reveals much about the intimate moments of her life with John Gregory Dunne, but also so much of it is a condemnation against the idea and possibility of confession. The point of investigative journalism is to get at the core, to expose it, to say, "there it is," a process of sheer and often illuminating reduction. Didion's work, if nothing else (and to be ultimately reductive here), points to how fragile any foothold may seem to us, that the shale of certainty is always breaking away, crumbling.

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