The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion
by Meghan Daum
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 244 pages
reviewed by Jamie Fisher
Authenticity is Her Bag
So here’s the problem with coma stories: not everyone gets a coma story. Life-threatening medical emergencies chased closely by miraculous recoveries are, for most of us, in short supply. People who do find themselves with a coma story shouldn’t be surprised when friends, relatives, and neighbors want a piece of it. They want your Ninety Minutes in Heaven, absent the ignominious retraction. They want to know how your near-death experience has changed you, brought you closer to God. They want your spiritual lesson, and they will be insistent.
Meghan Daum’s coma story caps off what you might call a tough year. First her grandmother died, then her mother. Then she began to feel woozy with grief or flu, except that it turned out to be flea-transmitted typhus that knocked her prone on a hospital bed, hovering for days in a medically induced coma. Her total recovery is so unanticipated that her neurologist is prompted to call it miraculous. (Not the word you want to hear from the man with his tools inside your skull, Daum observes.) Because she is a writer, her friends request a “coma story”. But it seems unfair to expect anything beyond a convalescence. Daum is satisfied with coming out of the crisis with her personality, and basic motor skills, intact. “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.”
As the closing essay in a book about authenticity, “Diary of a Coma” makes for a kind of fairy tale about the durability of the self. The collection’s title, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion coyly alludes to the vision of many contemporary personal essayists, that they are to ordinary writers what the war journalist is to the desk-bound blogger, spelunkers whose specialized function is dropping deep into the damp, unpleasant regions of the human soul. Daum both encourages this mentality (“Once or twice I’ve imagined confronting myself at a party, asking, ‘How could you say those things!’ and throwing a drink in my face”) and, a little severely, corrects it.
Her central duty in these essays is a crusade against cliché, in favor of the authentic reaction. She observes that “human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses. I wanted to look at why we so often feel guilt or even ashamed when we don’t feel the way we’re ‘supposed to feel’ about the big (and sometimes even small) events of our lives.” Sometimes that requires Daum to keel towards darker emotions, but just as frequently it calls for more evenhanded treatment.
“So many aspects of American life,” she writes, “seem to come shrink-wrapped in a layer of bathos.” The metaphor implies that what too many memoirists hit is fool’s gold. Where Daum finds Edward Albee-level hysterics, she peels them back to get at the real thing.
In that spirit Daum opens with the stunning “Matricide,” a chronicle of death, obligation, irritation, and inheritance down the female line. As her mother enters the late stages of gastrointestinal cancer, Daum reads “death books” to prepare herself for the final moment: “Medically speaking, I’d found these books to be extremely accurate about how things progressed, but some put a lot of emphasis on birds landing on windowsills at the moment of death or people opening their eyes at the last moment and making amends or saying something profound.” As it was, her brother was on Facebook, and she was on the second page of a Vogue article on Hillary Clinton. So it goes.
At an earlier stage in her mother’s illness, Daum fails to console her mother with the idea of reincarnation. “I don’t want to be a bird,” her mother says. The dying woman’s resistance is so sensible that it stops Daum short. “It’s amazing what the living expect of the dying,” she writes. “We expect wisdom, insight, bursts of clarity… We expect them to clear our consciences, to confirm our fantasies. We expect them to be excited about the idea of becoming a bird.”
Her honesty can move quickly from the droll detail to the jolt of terror, a tonal trajectory that will remind readers of Donald Antrim’s 2006 memoir-essays, The Afterlife. (Not least because the parallels are unnerving: both Daum and Antrim’s mothers begin to die just days after their own impossible mothers pass away.) Daum’s essay is as sympathetic as it is exasperated with her mother’s artificiality and attempts at self-invention, and frank about her own failures of courage. She admits pretending not to notice when her mother soiled herself, waiting instead for the orderlies to clean up. It’s a choice she makes out of a desire to protect her mother’s dignity, but also out of fear, resentment, and rage. In interviews, Daum has said that this was a detail she nearly dropped.
And that’s the plan. For all the openness a title like “Diary of a Coma” promises, Daum doesn’t refer to her essays as confessions, but “events recounted in the service of ideas.” To fit the service, events require shaping. “While some of the details I include may be shocking enough to suggest that I’m spilling my guts, I can assure you that for every one of those details there are hundreds I’ve chosen to leave out.” In her tribute to Joni Mitchell and the closely tailored confessional, Daum explains, “The lyrics people always interpret as confessions are really just invitations for the listener to come in closer. They’re saying, This isn’t about me. It’s about the whole world.”
By trimming herself back, Daum leaves room for the world she is so marvelously attentive to. Many of the essays have a novelistic feel; they are layered with recurring experiences and characters. Foreshadowing and hindsight bounce off one another, making even the slighter pieces feel internally resonant, like part of a greater tapestry.
Beyond her complicated relationship with her mother, Daum writes movingly and well about her own relationship to motherhood. Despite warnings that she would wake up with her biological clock ringing in her ears, Daum explains, “I would still look at a woman pushing a baby stroller and feel more pity than envy. In fact, I felt no envy at all, only relief that I wasn’t her. It was like looking at someone with an amputated limb or a terrible scar. I almost had to look away.”
Almost, but not quite. Daum’s willingness to look—at death and family obligation, self-deceit and foster care—makes these essays a smart corollary to Leslie Jamison’s compulsively readable essays on pain and empathy. Like Jamison, she writes about the project of self-expansion, but also the necessity of finding one’s limits. Learning to be yourself is, mostly, learning not to be everyone else: “To grow up and get to know yourself is primarily an exercise in taking things off the table.”
Daum first came to national attention with My Misspent Youth in 2001. The title essay is one of the most anti-romantic romances ever told about life in New York—a catalogue of credit-card debts and compromises Daum accumulated trying to inhabit the place, and more crucially the Meghan Daum, of her imagination. She described the situation with unsettling forensic ease, and with a wit that would endear her to a generation of would-be Manhattanites. Daum wound up in debt, she explains, “like a social smoker whose supposedly endearing desire to emulate Marlene Dietrich has landed her in a cancer ward.” The experiment ended with Daum apparently settled in Nebraska, but the collection was closely chased by Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House, a memoir of real-estate infatuation and madness.
In this collection, Daum divides her adulthood, and by extension her publishing history, into two stages. The first act was about “delirious career ambition and almost compulsive moving”; the second act seems “mostly to be about appreciating the value of staying put.” Houses are so neatly the perfect metaphor for questions of identity—certainly Richard Ford has squeezed ample mileage out of them—that Life Would Be Perfect often felt uncomfortably spot-on. Daum called her dream home “an ID badge for adulthood, for personhood, even.” We go shuffling through selves as we shuffle through rooms, and wind up, eventually, in a place where we can live. Identity is a commodity, but also a home.
One of the joys that comes with following Daum over time is watching her grow into her long, lyrical bones as an essayist, becoming herself and not, say, David Foster Wallace. She has relinquished the bad habit (inherited, I think, from DFW and perpetuated by Charles D’Ambrosio) of slackening her best moments with a put-on folksy eloquence, as if she was embarrassed to be seen writing.
It’s a tendency Daum herself has acknowledged, and one that she hasn’t entirely escaped. See her disquisition, in “Honorary Dyke,” on “all the crap in the media that suggests that not only are women a special interest group, they’re a group whose primary interest is themselves.” That’s pure Wallace: thoughtful analysis distended over long paragraphs, leavened with “crap” and “stuff” and other shrugs towards a laid-back sincerity which say, in total, This phenomenon I am describing is very serious but it’s not a conspiracy or anything like that, dude.
Daum is best, instead, in her sureness. Rather than render equivocation with deliberate clumsiness, Daum renders it exactly. She writes with breathtaking precision about ambiguity and yearning, particularly the preteen—and very post-teen—longing to hurry up and become whatever it is you’re supposed to become, only to find that you’re already, frustratingly, there. In “Not What It Used to Be,” she captures the full-hearted anxiety of her twenties:
I lay on my bed and listened to “So Real” and thought that I was mere inches away from being the person I wanted to be. My fingertips could almost touch that person. That person was both very specific (respected essayist, resident of the 10025 area code, lover of large, long-haired dogs) and someone who took multiple forms, who could go in any direction, who might be a bartender or a guitar player or a lesbian or a modern dancer or an office temp on Sixth Avenue. That person was usually the youngest person in the room.
“The Older Self of our imagination,” she continues, “never quite folds itself into the older self we actually become. Instead, it hovers in the perpetual distance like a highway mirage… It is the reason that I got to forty-something without ever feeling thirty-something.”
Daum’s endings can feel neat, too easily achieved; for all the author’s bristling against convention and resolution, there’s something to be said for the effect of ten years as a columnist on her closing style. She’ll repeat or rephrase a joke, or move into a series of repetitions, tricking you into a sense of rightness. Of course, there’s always the possibility that the insufficiency of her endings is deliberately achieved. Like adolescent yearning, you never really want these essays to cut off. You hope that she’ll invent some way of moving between stories without ever ending. Perhaps a dip, then a fading away, folding inevitably into the next chapter.
Jamie Fisher is a freelance writer, Chinese-English translator, and budding manuscript conservationist working out of Philadelphia. She graduated recently from the University of Pennsylvania, where her majors were Linguistics and East Asian Languages & Civilizations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.