Some essayists, perhaps because you share demographics like age and background, end up occupying oddly intimate places in your life. Meghan Daum — the original New Yorker-approved, essayist voice of Generation X — is one of them. She’s felt like a big sister ever since I found a copy of My Misspent Youth, her 2001 essay collection, at a bookstore. My Misspent Youth was the announcement of a bright new voice in nonfiction, and Daum was able to look tough topics in the eye — the lies of a literary life in New York, her staggering amount of debt, what it’s like when a friend dies at too young of an age. She was warm and realistic and not afraid to seem like an asshole.
In Daum’s second essay collection The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, which was over a decade in the making, the now-columnist for The L.A. Times, novelist, and sometimes memoirist applies her eye to the topics that stay underground: a parent’s mortality, miscarriages, children, Joni Mitchell, and brushes with death. The resulting collection is penetrating, difficult, and capable of great moments of connection and honesty. It’s also a book that’s hard to discuss, as your feelings may vary depending on where Daum is on a topic.
The strongest essays are the ones that look straight into the void: “Matricide,” “Difference Maker,” and “Diary of a Coma” are knotty and tough. “Difference Maker” sticks out as the heart of the book. She talks about volunteering as a court-appointed advocate for foster children, and the impossible gulf between one’s intentions and intimacy, and how that dovetailed, in ways both good and bad, with a miscarriage and the decision not to have children. “Diary of a Coma” is a brutal work, unflinching about a time when Daum nearly died, spending weeks in the hospital, losing her words.
The power of these essays make the other ones — the light ones, the funny ones, the ones where you would say that Daum turns her pen to the topics of her generation… well, they tend to flounder. Daum is a funny, fleet writer, but hearing what she has to say on love and marriage, the pursuit of honorary “lesbianism,” or the collected work of Joni Mitchell (which culminates with a strikingly awkward dinner with the lady of the canyon herself), feels somewhat glib in comparison. Sure, she has points to make — in “Honorary Dyke,” for instance, she argues that “the world is essentially a collection of teams… [and] life is the process of deciding which ones we’re going to join” — but they feel facile and obvious by comparison to the strange, bitter truths that she finds in the book’s highlights.
But I felt that way, all over the place, about My Misspent Youth as well. Daum is an excellent writer, and it’s fun to spend time with her as she’s as essayist that reliably stimulates your mind, but her essays can flip back and forth between mundane and profound. With every so-so essay, there’s one that haunts you; and with every profound truth she breaches, there’s one half-written joke. There are things that I’ll take with me from The Unspeakable: the honesty, the horrors that descend on life with age, events that I’m already steeling myself against, with Daum’s words as a balm — and there are things that will just float away, too.