22 November 2015

Style in “After Life”


Joan Didion’s essay is about the death of the author’s husband, and it offers a great example of a distinctive writing style.

“After Life” is a tough reading for me. Didion’s personal style makes me feel depressed. The opening sentences read directly from her diary, expressing an utter uncertainty of life. The mood is somber and helpless. What kept me continue to read are some of her unique writing choices, such as mixing of long and short paragraphs and of poetic and matter-of-fact sentences. On page 7 after the narrator realized her husband was dead, her shock and numbness are presented with repetitive short phrases: “I said yes”, “They gave me…”, “I thanked him” etc. The essay’s out-of-sequence flow gives a dreamy and sleepwalking feeling, an empty feeling stricken by the unexpected loss of a loved one. After the initial shock and numbness, the grief “comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.” The image of waves makes the ensuing scientific explanation of a person’s experience of grief relatable. Didion uses images throughout the piece. Towards the end, she compares trying to find meaning in her daily life “inconsistent with finding meaning in the vast indifference of geology and the test shots”; and there are images of “earthquake”, “swell of clear water”, and “we could have been swimming into the cave…slipped into the sea around us.” But life is not the clear water she has anticipated. Instead, “Life changes in the instant” as she says in the beginning when an unexpected cardiac arrest took place at the dinner table.