2 March, 2015Issue 27.4AutobiographyLiteratureThe Essay

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Smudging the Sunset

Sanders Bernstein

Meghan Daum
The Unspeakable and Other Subjects of Discussion
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2014
$26 (hardback)
244 pages
ISBN: 9780374280444

As a thrice-monthly Los Angeles Times columnist since 2005, Meghan Daum has waged a war over the past nine years against platitudes, truisms, and pieties, writing with the religious ardour of a social critic of the old type, wielding sarcasm and irony, one in each fist. Beginning with her debut collection of personal (and mostly humorous) essays, My Misspent Youth (2001), she has stridently declaimed “our habit of expressing ourselves through the trappings of particular ideas rather than through the substance of those ideas.” When Ariel Castro’s victims reiterated messages of hope after emerging from his dungeon, Daum flambéed the old chestnut that suffering is redemptive. When Sarah Palin called herself a feminist, Daum wrote in her defence that there must be a place for conservative feminists too. When Los Angeles’ mayor claimed “full responsibility” for his extramarital affair, she poked holes in that ubiquitous phrase beloved of politicians and athletes. Yet, under the regular demands of churning out a column, there are lapses. She can be lazy: she put Facebook users on blast for the network’s culture of bragging, and as payoff on Rolling Stone’s coverage of rape at the University of Virginia, wrote that “last I checked, nothing cures idiocy like asking questions.” Even as she dissolves many with her acidic wit, her work ends up precipitating out its own fair share of bromides.

This pattern is little different in The Unspeakable and Other Subjects of Discussion, Daum’s new collection of ten lengthy interlinked personal essays. Growing out of a concern about sentimentality’s place in American culture—as Daum dryly asserts in her introduction, “to reject sentimentality, or even question it, isn’t just uncivilized, it’s practically un-American”—the essays have expanded to investigate the “way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses” and settled upon the things that one (supposedly) cannot say as their core subject. Among these unmentionable subjects are Daum’s anger with her dying mother, her membership in the category of the honorary dyke or “phantom butch”, the futility of serving as a legal foster advocate, her love of Los Angeles, and the illogic of almost dying of a flea bite, an event in which she lost the ability to speak. Yet, as confident and masterful a writer as she is, she offers little to erect in place of the “culture whose discourse is largely rooted in platitudes” that she assails. She takes a sponge to the horizon and leaves behind merely smudges where was once a sunset.

‘Matricide’, the bruising first essay, haunts the entire reading experience. Throwing out the pieties of death narratives—”people who weren’t there like to say that my mother died at home surrounded by loving family”—Daum thrusts the reader into the reality of the grim scene, in which only Daum and her brother are in the apartment, “and he was looking at Facebook and I was reading a profile of Hilary Clinton in the December 2009 issue of Vogue…I heard her gasp. Then nothing more.” Not only her mother’s death comes under the knife; so does the character of her mother and her mother’s mother, against both of whom she harbours an uncomfortable if honest resentment.

Daum’s tone towards her mother is ambivalent, even if her words are damning. Perhaps no condemnation is more total than Daum’s sense “that she simply didn’t know how to be,” an ugly suggestion that death is the thing that her mother was best at. Indeed, only in her mother’s decline does Daum not “merely love her. I actually liked her.” There is no such grace for her grandmother, however. She is a “mean little girl in a sweet old woman’s body” who damaged her mother “on a cellular level.” But Daum’s love emerges for her mother not in any statements of affection (for that would be sentimental), but in her mother’s frequent reappearance within the following essays and small, unremarked-upon actions—Daum’s defence of her mother when verbally abused by her grandmother and her persistent, if nonsensical, checking of her mother’s corpse’s lack of pulse to ensure that she will not be cremated alive (one of her mother’s great fears). There is no false respect, nor is there closure.

But there is also a haunting detachment in Daum’s account. From a place of remove she is able to write such sentences as “the best line in this whole saga goes to my mother’s oncologist, who broke the bad news like this: ‘Our hope for this treatment was that it would give you more time. Some of that time has now passed.’” One can’t help but feel that Daum includes a discussion of reincarnation because her mother’s comment, “I don’t want to be a baby again”, highlights the irony that her mother was in “adult diapers. Women’s Depends, size small.” Daum’s pretensions to “getting real” seem only that. The artfulness of her work is not compelling enough to make one forget her shaping. It merely seems to be animated by a vengeful consciousness.

However, this pathologically honest voice, this oddly distant “I narrator”, brutal though it is, retains a tight hold on the reader even as the subsequent moments of callousness, of which there are quite a few, are magnified. In ‘The Best Possible Experience’, an essay that discusses her dating life, nearly devoid of affection for her partners, she admits that

what I was about, was the fieldwork aspect…I was looking for experiences, for characters, for people who paid other people to chant and beat drums while they lay on massage tables wearing flashing LED sunglasses. I regarded my love interests less as potential life mates than as characters in movie I happened to have wandered into.

Even while divulging her disproportionate, “schmaltzy” love of dogs in ‘The Dog Exception’, she conceptualizes the dog as furniture: “because their love actually becomes absorbed into the architecture of your home, their deaths can be more devastating than even the death of a close friend or family member.” Of course, Daum is astute enough to recognize this, and she prognosticates at the start about those readers who will find “a few disclosures about my interior life…depressing or even alarming.” She is too committed to her craft to hold these details back, declaring she “wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Yet the details that she chooses to dwell upon are not merely admissions of an unappealing internal life. Instead, they reveal the kernels of Daum’s literary consciousness, the lens upon life that the essays offer, the choices made about of inclusion and exclusion that every writer wrestles with. Daum thinks the sentimental is easy and to face up to the truth is hard. But to fixate upon the ugliness of life is no less of a choice than to examine the wondrous and beautiful. The essays offer their own myths rooted in Daum’s sensibility, her own “personal mythology.” She provides morals, as at the end of ‘Diary of a Coma’, the last essay of the collection, and one of the strongest:

I am no wiser or more evolved than I was before. There is no epiphany or revelation or aha moment or big click. There is no redemption. There is no great lesson learned. There is only the unknowable and the unspeakable. There is only the unlikely if ever-present possibility that life is just a string of stories inside a coma. And in this story, I am not a better person. I am the same person. This is a story with a happy ending. Or at least something close enough.

However, Daum’s moral is specious. She has been changed, even as she denies it. She is now a person who has suffered coma, who has approached death. She is now a person who has written about that coma, who has written about near-death. Her insistence on her unfaltering sameness throughout these experiences does not merely refute the myth of suffering’s redemptive qualities, but goes further to deny the significance of experience itself. Even if “life is just a string of stories inside a coma” that does not mean that the stories are unable to imprint themselves upon the comatose brain and effect some change thereafter. If life is not the condition of change—or at least the possibility of change—what, then, for Daum, distinguishes it from death, the ultimate stasis?

An earlier American personal essay collection of last year, The Empathy Exams, by a younger and (hitherto) less accomplished author, Leslie Jamison, offers a ready antidote to Daum’s doxa of detachment. Her writing is immediate and sensuous, if occasionally numbing in its incessant sincerity, its incessant viscerality. Her work seems to gush out of a great wound that cannot be anesthetized. Indeed, many of her essays engage at the intersection of physical and psychological pain—heart surgery, a bone-breaking blow to the face (also requiring surgery), an abortion, real and imagined parasites, ultra-marathon running, anorexia. She feels and feels and feels and is not ashamed of it. In ‘Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain’, the last essay of her collection, Jamison defends the sentimental as she had earlier done in ‘In Defense of Saccharin(e)’, pleading that the cliché not be discarded:

Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.

Jamison embodies the opposite approach to Daum. Rather than write to eradicate, write to tear down, write against, she writes to rehabilitate, to rediscover, she writes for. If only Daum could find something that she feels similarly about. Because she does write enviably well.

Sanders Bernstein completed a second BA in English language and literature at Merton College, Oxford. He is now reading for a PhD in English literature at the University of Southern California.