Review

In 'The Unspeakable,' Meghan Daum is candid and guilt-free

Meghan Daum is a master of the bold admission in 'The Unspeakable'

Meghan Daum has made a career of mining her life with candor to explore larger points about our culture in essays, books and opinion columns for the Los Angeles Times. "My Misspent Youth" describes how she racked up $80,000 in debt in her 20s. In "Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House," she peered at her personal history through the windows of the many abodes where real estate lust had landed her.

After two decades of opening the curtains on her inner sanctum, Daum knows what's bound to attract gawkers — including her admission that having children "felt unnecessary" to her. Although her goal in "The Unspeakable" isn't specifically to ruffle feathers, it's certainly her expectation. In fact, in these 10 personal essays — written expressly for this book — she's drawn to uncomfortable, often unflattering revelations, what she calls "the unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor." Her aim, she says, is "to examine the tension between primal reactions and public decorum … the spin we put on our lives."

We live in an age of over-sharing that has made it harder to shock but easier to express disapproval publicly. Although much formerly forbidden behavior barely raises an eyebrow, scolds run rampant on the Internet. It's not hard to imagine online comments in reaction to "Matricide," Daum's essay exploring her ambivalence toward her mother's death at 67. An opening salvo might read: You pretended to sleep, waiting for the hospital nurse, while your miserably incontinent mother, dying of gall bladder cancer, soiled herself? Glad you're not my daughter! Shame on you!

Daum is a master of the bold admission. While guilt and humor are central to Roz Chast's "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?," which also addresses mixed feelings about caring for aging parents, they aren't here. In "Matricide," Daum writes that when her mother died in 2009, "I was as relieved as I'd planned to be." Her dog Rex's death, on the other hand, "was the worst grief I've faced in my life so far," she confides in "The Dog Exception."

Daum explains, "If you asked me what my central grievance with my mother was, I would tell you that I had a hard time not seeing her as a fraud." Whereas animals, she writes, are incapable of phoniness — and a perfect outlet for the sentimentality otherwise anathema to her overall "antischmaltz policy." We may not applaud her priorities, but that isn't her point: It's to examine default reactions to such unvarnished honesty.

Just don't call these intimate declarations confessions. "They're events recounted in the service of ideas," Daum insists. In describing Joni Mitchell's modus operandi, she is also describing her own: "The artist who puts herself out there is not foisting a confession on her audience as much as letting it in on a secret, which she then turns into a story."

Daum is pretty comfortable with who she is — and isn't. She skewers her eagerness for notice in "Invisible City," which captures her awkwardness as a nonentity at a celebrity-studded dinner party at her mentor Nora Ephron's Los Angeles home. But though she occasionally expresses regret and shame in these essays, in general she's refreshingly at peace with her idiosyncrasies and limitations, including her antipathy to food and cooking, to having children and to wandering outside her comfort zone. Citing the craze for heirloom tomatoes, she writes with typical wryness, "One of the great pleasures of trends is the option of sitting them out."

As much as she opens herself to criticism, Daum is no slouch at self-defense. Lest you think her an unfeeling monster (or so-called unnatural woman) for the "permanent ambivalence" to motherhood she felt after a miscarriage, she writes movingly, "To this day, there is nothing I've ever been sorrier about than my inability to make my husband a father." In the ironically titled "Difference Maker," the book's most powerful essay, she puts revelations about what she calls the "Central Sadness" of her marriage into perspective with a frank assessment of her sincere efforts — but limited ability — to make a real difference as a Big Sister or court-appointed advocate in the heartbreaking foster-care system.

"The Unspeakable" ends with "Diary of a Coma," an unemotional account of a rare bacterial infection (murine typhus, from flea feces) that briefly sent Daum to death's door in 2010. Daum's addition to the growing body of auto-pathological literature — whose stellar practitioners include Leslie Jamison, Sarah Manguso and Suleika Jaouad, to name just a few — differs in that she offers neither lessons nor epiphanies.

Illness is no metaphor for Daum. She admits to being "no wiser or more evolved than I was before." Instead, she writes, "There is only the unknowable and the unspeakable." Small comfort, that. But comforting "redemption stories" about adversity's silver lining are exactly the sort of platitudinal sentimentality that Daum has set out to counter in this deliberately provocative book.

McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR.org, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

The Unspeakable
And Other Subjects of Discussion

Meghan Daum
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 245 pp., $26

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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