Writers often revisit themes in their work, refine plot lines, almost as if they’re dancers performing a more sophisticated version of an earlier piece, this time set to a slightly different tune. In Didion’s case, the reflections themselves, the easy passage of time from present tense to a recollection, have become an imbedded flagstone of her work. In A Book of Common Prayer
— both so much about reflection and memo
ry — the themes are eerily similar. In retrospect, A Book of Common Prayer
seems to be oddly prescient. Although told by a narrator, the protagonist’s best friend, it is the story of Charlotte Douglas, whose daughter Marin, her only child, has gone into hiding suspected of some kind of terrorism, and, despite Charlotte’s unflinching belief that she will somehow find her in Boca Raton, she will never see her again. Through the narration is Charlotte’s quest to understand what seems inexplicable to her, how she came to be where she is now, alone, having left her second husband, searching for her lost daughter as she hurtles into her own certain death. The memories that she tries to piece together — dressing her child for Easter, a remembered line, “Will I have braces in the fourth grade?” — seem to echo the harsh reality of Didion’s latest work.
I have a daughter who won’t go to The Grove, the outdoor, Vegas-style mall annexed to the old Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles, because the escalators, specifically the white steps of the escalators, the white-on-white, seem to her “too Didion,” as if the name alone has now become an adjective or an adverb. She is not my only daughter and I know where both my daughters are today, somewhere in what Didion calls subtropical California.
So, I understand why so much of it is understandably inexplicable. The state Didion found herself in after John’s death, compounded by the death of her daughter Quintana Roo, compounded by the sense of her own mortality and an illness that is as inexplicable, it seems, as all the others. Did I just use the word “inexplicable” more than once? I meant to. But as Didion finds herself unable, truly unable, to get up from a chair after a rehearsal of what will be Vanessa Redgrave’s star-turn dramatic rendition of The Year of Magical Thinking
, it seems a perfectly reasonable reaction to the events that have preceded it. Frozen there. Not able to move. As if time has stopped. A condition that will be diagnosed as “Neuritis. Neuropathy. A neurological inflammation.”
And when she asks what causes it? The neurologist answers, “Not weighing enough.” But the reader wants to interrupt and say, “Really are you sure? Are you sure it isn’t sadness? Or having more thrown at you than you can bear?”
The repetition of memories she recounts in the book, fragments of memory, memories that are difficult to summon, that come to her merely in fragments, as if she’s trying to piece them together to make them make sense, memories of the beautiful baby girl they adopted, memories of “subtropical California,” are a painful patchwork, as if she is also frightened that she will not be able to remember or not be able to remember the words one would use to describe a memory.
.” A phrase she repeats often.
“Time passes but not for me
And then adds with a curious power as if the repetition itself is another bass line: