by Meghan Daum
(Open City Books) $14 Published March 15.
Recently, I was at home writing, but my mind was naggingly preoccupied by a series of low-grade worries: whether a check I had written would bounce, the corrosion on my car battery, the direction my life was taking. It was raining, with the kind of dense charcoal sky that seems about to envelop the world--and, like an idiot, I was listening to Nick Drake. The overall effect was one of fragmentary distress, a lack of focus more than merely annoying to someone who generally leads with her head; but I realized that all this ambient anxiety could be written into an essay, toward understanding (perhaps) the lie of the bohemian lifestyle, the kind of lie you have to believe in order to get from one day to the next. My emotional state, in short, could be funneled into a kind of literary grace.
This is something Meghan Daum, in her collection My Misspent Youth, does very well--the transformation of one's own demons into (forgive the German) a Gestalt, a Zeitgeist, a Weltanschauung. Her demons are fairly benign by the standards of tragedy: a penchant for Jewish men, an aversion to wall-to-wall carpeting, an overwhelming amount of debt. Daum admits the kinds of things that are hard to admit, either because of their cultural pettiness or lack of glamour. It reminds me of how much harder it was to confess to my therapist that I procrastinate by watching Beverly Hills 90210 reruns than to a litany of drug experiences and one-night stands. Daum takes this catalogue of embarrassments and models it into a philosophy that she sets out, with a great debt to Joan Didion, in the book's introduction. The essays, she writes, "are all about the way intense life experiences take on the qualities of scenes from movies.... They are about the fictional narratives that overpower the actual events, the cartoon personae that elbow the live figure from the frame."
Didion, in fact, hovers over this collection like a very specific muse (not unnoticed by the publisher). She's in the cautionary-tale style of essay, in the "preferred narrative [working] to veil actual conflict" (as Didion wrote in the spectacular "Sentimental Journeys"), even in the diction. The collection's title essay is daughter to Didion's "Goodbye to All That," a more bitter-than-sweet farewell to New York. In Daum's case it's a reckoning of the overwhelming amount of money she has spent in service of the idea of living in New York, an idea she had nursed since, as a teenager, she walked into an Upper West Side apartment with oak wood floors. This piece, which first appeared in The New Yorker, is about her addiction to a dream--and that dream's failure--at the end of which Daum herself says goodbye to all that and moves to Nebraska.
Didion made Daum possible, which would be embarrassing if Didion were not such a tremendous writer, and if Daum did not so neatly pull the form into present concerns. Daum writes with a solipsism that (to borrow a Didionlike phrase) may or may not have been possible in the '60s and '70s, when Didion was writing the essays contained in Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album, when the personal was more political, when there was no Oprah. Two of Daum's essays, one about flight attendants and one about a polyamorous family in California, force the writer to look outside herself for cultural cues, to make sense of someone else's embarrassments. While these pieces are interesting and the writing is quite fine, they're not as compelling as "American Shiksa" (on the aforementioned Jewish men) and "Carpet Is Mungers" (on the aforementioned wall-to-wall). Daum on Daum tells us more than Daum on anything else.
It could be that the collection is not as impressive as it seems to me. It could be specific to women, or writers, or even to women writers who worked on an MFA at Columbia University toward the end of the 20th century. And I should know--I attended the same graduate program as Daum, a year behind her. It's therefore nearly impossible for me to read these essays as anything but a lens through which to look at my own success as a writer. But although I first read My Misspent Youth pickled in envy and mistrust, I came back to it with unexpected tenderness, my bad feelings morphed into respect. And if my essay about Daum is more about me than about her, it seems in keeping with the way she turns the universal into the subjective. It's another one of those stories we tell ourselves in order to live.