'Once upon a time, in the early 1990s,' Meghan Daum writes in 'The Unspeakable,' her new essay collection, Generation X was 'the cohort people were interested in.' The author, 44, is squarely a member of that generation, never more clearly than when she asks herself, 'How did I get to be middle aged without really growing up?'
Ms. Daum's 2001 essay collection, 'My Misspent Youth,' arrived before the Internet launched a thousand candid writing careers. That book was composed of pieces that had appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's and other traditional name makers. It made her a bright young thing before the 'personal' in personal essay metastasized into the over-sharing model of Emily Gould or the strenuously performed empathy of Cheryl Strayed's 'Dear Sugar' advice column.
Since 2001, Ms. Daum has written a novel and a real-estate-obsession memoir and has become a columnist for The Los Angeles Times, but 'My Misspent Youth' remains her defining work, especially for readers who moved to New York when she did, accumulated debt when she did and started caring about R.E.M. videos when she did. 'The Unspeakable,' at its best, captures the dawn of midlife the way her earlier book conjured prolonged post-adolescence. Our parents are getting older and dying, the snooze buttons on our biological clocks have given out, and still we grapple with growing up.
'Matricide,' one of the book's two strongest pieces, includes Ms. Daum's muted reaction to her mother's death ('I was as relieved as I'd planned to be') and describes 'three generations of women in one family, each of them almost physically repelled by the one before.' And in a short space, it offers a remarkably novelistic portrait of Ms. Daum's mother. We see clearly her severity, her abrupt and self-conscious transformation into a 'flashy, imperious, hyperbolic theater person' and her nearly 20-year separation (but never official divorce) from Ms. Daum's father. ('My mother didn't want my father to be her husband, but she still wanted him to impersonate one when the occasion arose.')
Essays like 'Matricide' stand firmly on their own, but as she did in 'My Misspent Youth,' Ms. Daum has written an introduction here that defensively and needlessly attempts to predigest the collection. 'As frank as they are, they aren't confessions,' she says of the essays. 'At its core, this book is about the ways that some of life's most burning issues are considered inappropriate for public or even private discussion.' This may be true of reacting to the death of one's parents, but it overstates the 'unspeakable' nature of several of the book's more diverting topics, like not loving to cook or thinking some people get Joni Mitchell wrong.
Ms. Daum is not as weird as she thinks she is, which can be both charming and mildly irritating. She either has a low bar for taboo or hopes the two or three genuinely challenging pieces will infuse the rest of the book in a way they don't and shouldn't have to. If a couple of the lighter essays here are in danger of floating away, others succeed without Ms. Daum's needing to insist they be connected to weightier themes. A closely observed game of charades with Rob Reiner, Nicole Kidman and others at Nora Ephron's house is its own reward. (Mr. Reiner was 'a taskmaster'; Ms. Kidman 'sat quietly staring at the rug.')
Ms. Daum can be very funny. In 'Honorary Dyke,' an otherwise lackluster essay about how she's attracted to lesbians and some of their cultural signifiers without being gay herself, she describes her style as including 'Tweety Bird hair' and a 'makeup arsenal composed of tinted sunscreen and eight different flavors of ChapStick.' Trying to explain phone etiquette to a 13-year-old, she says, can make someone her age feel like 'an old-timey portrait in a Ken Burns documentary, fading in and out between stock photos of drum-cylinder printing presses while Patricia Clarkson reads from your letters.'
An easygoing sense of humor is a handy tool for Ms. Daum, but more serious subjects inspire her best work. The 'chronically dissatisfied,' second-guessing quality she diagnoses in herself is what makes her a probing writer, capable of describing some of life's thornier problems, even if the second-guessing could be weeded from the prose a bit more. There are sentences that begin with a string of throat-clearing qualifiers, as in, 'Sometimes I think perhaps my greatest wish is ....'
Competing with 'Matricide' for the most lasting impression is 'Difference Maker,' about being a mentor to children. Ms. Daum was drawn to it, in part, because she felt it was more in line with her disposition than raising children of her own. (She mentions a miscarriage she had at 41, which left her 'neither relieved nor devastated.') She also fears that her life has become 'an isometric exercise requiring the foot to repeatedly draw very small, perfect circles in the air,' and wants 'bigger, messier circles.'
In this essay, Ms. Daum looks plainly at the plight of neglected children, describing their troubles in heartbreaking detail. She comes to realize that some people may always elude help even when it's offered, and no matter how undeserved their pain. The essay expresses ambivalence from a privileged perspective without courting the kind of mockery sometimes given to 'first-world problems.' It simply acknowledges how difficult it can be to know what makes a life worth living. When Ms. Daum is locked in like this, balancing self-analysis with observation of the outside world, she's among the best personal essayists of a searching, cynical generation that's lucky to have her.
And Other Subjects of Discussion
By Meghan Daum