IN “DIFFERENCE MAKER,” one of the 10 essays in her strong new collection, Meghan Daum compares the practice of writing to an “isometric exercise requiring the foot to repeatedly draw very small, perfect circles in the air.” It’s a good analogy: working at writing, an obsessive and isolating pursuit (often traceable to a neurotic impulse), can seem a little crazy, especially to the writer herself. All the more reason to be grateful to Daum for keeping at it. I admire many things about Daum’s writing — her wit, her daring, her worldliness — but what I value most is her deployment of the forces of aimed precision.
The impulse to make sense of things is everywhere in The Unspeakable, and so is its ally, honesty. Consider the lead essay, “Matricide.” Here, Daum manages to convey exactly what was so unbearable about her mother, or, more precisely, what was so intolerable, for her, about having a mother like hers. Daum’s mother constantly told self-aggrandizing white lies — petty ones that her children could not bring themselves to challenge. She demanded praise. She was so empty and inauthentic as to be a “mere outline of a person.” She didn’t, as Daum puts it, “know how to be.” At midlife, this formerly frumpy and mildly depressed woman suddenly became a “flashy, imperious, hyperbolic theater person […],” the kind who always has a “delicate, artisan-woven scarf tossed around her neck,” a synecdoche that makes the pretentious woman herself appear before our eyes. What’s worse, this newly transformed mother managed to penetrate the adolescent Meghan’s territory, hanging around the theater at her high school until “everyone just assumed she was in charge.”
When Daum describes her mother’s “habit of picking up the phone in her office […] and letting the receiver hang in the air for several seconds as she continued whatever in-person conversation she was already having,” I thought, I know this woman. Moments of wincing recognition like this are exactly what I read for, and Daum’s portrait is as unflinching as I could wish. But any competent writer can deconstruct a parent. What’s remarkable here is that after Daum’s demolition is complete, she goes on to rehabilitate her mother — at least much as is possible — and, in so doing, implicates herself. In a harrowing and illuminating scene, Daum pretends to be asleep while her mother, dying of cancer, lies in her own shit. No nurse is available, but Daum keeps her eyes shut. These two simply don’t have a relationship that would permit her to perform the daughterly office of cleaning her mother up: both would feel violated. At least as long as her mother doesn’t actually cry out, it’s a kindness to feign sleep, but at the same time an “act of rage.” At moments like this motives converge.
In the end, as her mother nears death and sinks into delirium, Daum even permits her a momentary authenticity. “For the first time in years she was without affectation,” she writes “[…] As feathery and ephemeral as she was, she seemed like a real person.” This is a very late and bitterly ironic validation, but a real one. Think of Lear, raving on the heath.
I see that perhaps I’m giving the impression that Daum is a “heavy” writer. She’s not. Like any good personal essayist, she knows how to dive and how to surface. Even at her most serious, she’s funny and au courant, and her voice is boldly casual. Conversely, in some of the collection’s lighter pieces, we’re nonetheless privy to the workings of her questioning mind.
An example: in “The Dog Exception,” Daum considers the cult of pet-worship. She takes an amusing look at a mawkish internet poem called “The Rainbow Bridge,” about an afterlife in which deceased pets are reunited with their owners. Her own dog’s death plunged her into deep mourning, and she admits that “The Rainbow Bridge” makes her cry. In a blog post, or in the kind of one-note personal pieces newspapers tend to publish, this ironically hedged admission might be the endpoint or punch line; but Daum goes further, taking the essay around a couple of unexpected bends. In her conclusion, she takes a stab at explaining our sentimentality about animals. It has to do, she says, with our knowledge of death — our own and theirs.
Another entertaining essay with a high thought quotient is “Honorary Dyke,” in which Daum tells us about her tropism toward lesbian life and culture — this in spite of being as straight as any woman ever is (that is, I’ve always thought, not entirely). For some time, she liked the accouterments of lesbian culture — the haircuts, the clothes — enough to borrow them; but her fellow feeling for lesbians was never just a matter of fashion — it went deeper than that. Daum was and is fascinated by women, “not in a sexual way, but in a visceral way, in an existential way. […] Women are more colorful, more layered, more interesting to watch.” During her undergraduate years, she moved in gay circles, “less for the sex,” she writes, “than the sociology.” At one point, she even gave a lesbian relationship “the old college try,” but the experiment ended in tears, not hers. Daum, in the “boy part,” was “irritated” (give her points for honesty) and emotionally stony. She was the butch. Now, years later and (heterosexually) married, she still is.
Perhaps it’s her ongoing status as an “honorary dyke” that licenses Daum to decouple “butchness” from its familiar gay associations, a bold move that opens up new psychological and sociological territory. What does it mean to be a butch straight woman? It means, she says, “a certain anti-girliness, a certain lack of bullshit. We do not, for instance, elevate our vocal pitch at the end of declarative sentences as though asking a question.” Reading this I thought, me, too! Sign me up.
And I was thrilled to see Daum steer her hetero-butch juggernaut in the direction of “women’s culture” — the world of stiletto heels and martini glasses and “bosomy, spray-tanned, baby-crazed bling” that has ballooned into view, in recent years, on the internet and TV. This is what 40 years of feminism has brought us? I’ve often wondered why I haven’t heard more said against it. Perhaps it’s an embarrassment to feminists; perhaps they feel obliged to bite their tongues in an impulse of political solidarity. Daum, however, feels no such constraint. She manages to find exactly the right angle from which to lead a charge on this phenomenon, with its “gaudy, petty horrors.” This makes “Honorary Dyke” important reading.
But personal essays don’t need to be important. In no other form is a writer so free to write about the major and the minor. Any author putting together a collection must think of balance; appropriately, a few of the essays in The Unspeakable are lighter than light — though in the hands of a writer like Daum, an ephemeral piece can be a showplace for specifically essayistic skills: deftness of touch, tonal control, writerly tact. An essay about food or a favorite singer doesn’t always pay its way in the currency of thought. It therefore requires that the writer call upon another resource — intimacy with the reader.
The next-to-last selection in The Unspeakable is an extended anecdote about life in Los Angeles titled “Invisible City.” Early on, Daum gives fair warning: she will be dropping some names. Oh no, I thought: can she bring this off? But I was inclined to trust her: thus far, after all, she’d been working behind the scenes of theme and argument, forging that closeness between writer and reader that is the hallmark of the personal essay. I felt I knew her. I did know her.
Down dropped the names: Nora Ephron, Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, Arianna Huffington, Meg Ryan, Nicole Kidman. I braced for impact, acutely sensitized to any false notes. But there were none: Daum’s account of the party where she encountered these celebrities is suffused with self-deprecating humor and a modesty that can’t be faked. Some, not all, were almost monstrously rude, but Daum’s not out to show them up. Instead, she uses the situation to anatomize her own social panic in the face of radical egotism. How do you find a way to talk to someone who won’t acknowledge your existence? Daum had a terrible time at the party, but she got through it and saved the story for readers like me. I got through it, too — and I had fun.
These days, so many personal essays are unsatisfying. They tend to be flatly narrative or insubstantially lyrical or breathlessly confessional or faux-naive — anything but energetically thoughtful. Essayists don’t seem to want to bear down, or perhaps they don’t know how. In this delightful and radiantly intelligent collection, Meghan Daum does.