I am a jealous person — jealous of the vacations I see on Instagram, of my sister’s perfect hair, of the latte the man next to me just ordered — but it took me a long time to realize I was a jealous reader and writer. In fact, I didn’t know that literature was something I could be envious of until I read Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness. There, in the last essay of the collection, a piece titled “Song for the Special,” Keegan addresses her “unthinkable jealousies.” “Why didn’t I think to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway? I should have thought to chronicle a schizophrenic ballerina,” she writes. “It’s inexcusable.”
Like Keegan, I was angry that Michael Cunningham thought to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway first — The Hours should have been mine! Come to think of it, “Song for the Special” should have been mine! And it spread from there.
I’m jealous of ridiculous things: of Little Women, and of the original Mrs. Dalloway, if it comes down to it, and of Alice in Wonderland and of Walden. I’m jealous of Atonement and of Housekeeping. I’m jealous of every writer who’s written a feature for The Atlantic and of every Paris memoir that’s ever been published, especially the ones that involve a lot of food. I am full of unthinkable jealousies.
When I described this to a friend he corrected me. “You’re not jealous,” he said. “You’re envious. You want to have written these books, sure, but it’s not like you feel you rightfully should have.”
He’s wrong, though. I do.
My strongest jealousies have a certain logic to them. The books I’m most jealous of aren’t necessarily the ones I most admire. I love The Brothers Karamazov and I love the Oresteia, but I can’t say either inspires jealousy or envy or anything else, really, aside from a kind of awe. They exist outside me, and I can’t conceive of any alternate reality in which I might have written them. But Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House? I’m jealous of that, just as I’m jealous of her first collection, My Misspent Youth. Truthfully, I’m jealous of most literary essayists, especially those who write about their homes or homely yearnings. Why? The through line is just me, that I want to have written their work. And sometimes, late at night, I allow myself to think that maybe I could have, if only they hadn’t gotten there first.
As an earnest undergraduate, I used to write obsessively about houses and their connection to identity; my scraped-together thesis covered A Room of One’s Own and Fun Home, two more books I envy. Life Would Be Perfect tackles the same questions I struggled to answer with more grace, insight, and humor then I could have ever hoped to muster at 22, if ever. When I found Daum’s memoir, too late to use it for my paper, I was unimaginably jealous. I could have written that book, or at least one very like it! All I needed was more time (and maybe an MFA)! But Daum had beaten me to it, and my handful of essays looked punier than ever. The problem wasn’t really that someone had written about refinished floors with the same zeal I felt, of course. My jealousy was largely just a cover for my terror. How could I ever write something original when someone had already explored, written, and published all of my ideas and interests?
The grand irony is that Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House is very much a book about envy. It’s a memoir about obsession, insecurity, and identity creation, but the source of all this trouble is “a shabby yet elegant prewar apartment in Manhattan,” not a memoir published by a talented stranger. Daum’s admission that she “sometimes found it difficult to read the Sunday paper without writhing in envy” at the luxury real estate listings and that simply “walking by certain edifices…without feeling the ache of rejection” became impossible works pretty well as a description of literary jealousy. Just replace “luxury real estate listings” with “bestseller list” and “edifices” with “the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble.”
Life Would Be Perfect charts a struggle with identity and jealousy, but here the relationship between the two isn’t necessarily destructive. Daum’s real estate envy drives her to move from Manhattan to Nebraska to L.A., creating a livable and even enjoyable life as she goes. Her jealousy ultimately incites action, not paralysis. She is not erased. The envied apartment and life are still attainable, and Daum goes after them. This time there’s a way out of the seemingly infinite jealousy loop, and she takes it.
Not all jealousy is so easily converted into action, however. Like any explosive material, it has its dangers as well as its uses, as art and history tell us again and again. Why did Cain kill Abel? Why did Medea murder not only Jason’s new bride but her own children? And why does Antonino Salieri, a passionate but mediocre Austrian court composer and the focus of Miloš Forman’s stylish film Amadeus, break down once he recognizes the overwhelming talent of a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?
“From now on we are enemies, You and I,” Salieri spits, not at Mozart but at a crucifix, in a scene at the heart of the film. He isn’t angry at the prodigy; here it’s God who’s the enemy. “You chose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy, and gave me for award only the ability to recognize the incarnation,” Salieri complains. “Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it.” And he does, eventually killing Mozart with sheer overwork and nervous exhaustion. God gave Salieri “only the ability to recognize the incarnation” of ability, the desire for brilliance but none of the brilliance itself. What could be worse? What could be more relatable for a reader and aspiring writer?
In “An Ode to Envy,” a TED Talk, senior editor at the New York Review of Books and remarkable essayist Parul Sehgal points out that without jealousy there wouldn’t be much literature to speak of. No William Shakespeare, no Anna Karenina, no Brothers Karamazov, no Madame Bovary, no Marcel Proust. One of the wonders of fiction, she argues, is its ability to accurately capture and reflect our jealousy. The power and dark appeal of envy, so often blurred in real life, are fully revealed in our greatest novels. Sehgal adds that jealousy itself is creative work. “When we feel jealous we tell ourselves a story,” she explains. “We tell ourselves a story about other people’s lives, and these stories make us feel terrible because they’re designed to make us feel terrible. As the teller of the tale and the audience we know just what details to include…Jealousy makes us all amateur novelists.”
But what about those of us who deal in nonfiction? What does essayistic jealousy look like? Is it possible that our jealousy is simultaneously less creative and more painful then its fictional counterpart? Is it possible that it’s less jealousy and more insecurity? Less Sehgal and more Salieri?
When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.” We’re not amateur novelists at all, just whiners.
Sehgal has a suggestion, drawn from “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” a Sherlock Holmes story in which the bumbling detective Lestrade finally allows himself to admire Holmes’s incredible abilities rather than resenting his genius. “What if jealousy really is just a matter of geometry, just a matter of where we allow ourselves to stand?” Sehgal wonders. “What if we don’t have to resent somebody’s excellence, [but instead] we can align ourselves with it?”
Easier said then done, sure, but as an idealistic goal it’s better than nothing, and certainly far better than Salieri’s murderous vision. It works particularly well when one is wrestling with awe in the face of true talent and real brilliance. It works considerably less well if one is frustrated by more possible comparisons, by mere issues of timing and semi-plausible “if onlys.”
For this second, more practical problem of jealousy, Meghan Daum again offers a solution. In the foreword to the 2015 edition of My Misspent Youth, the essay collection that made her career, Daum tells a story about the title essay. Immediately after finishing a first draft “in a two-week fury,” Daum came across a strikingly similar essay by Vince Passaro in Harper’s. “Reading his story,” she writes, “I felt even more certain I was on to something…I was also certain that no one would ever publish my essay now because it had effectively already been published.”
It is at this point that many writers’ basest instincts would kick in, but Daum gets to work. There’s no sense of frustration or injustice, no hint of insecurity. She isn’t jealous; she is a writer. So, she “rewrote [the essay] several times,” changing the focus to something more unique to her experience, separating it from the more general essay that preceded it. An easy solution? No, but a simple one.
Daum’s approach is infinitely more practical than my own patented sulking, but I don’t think it will ever totally replace it. Four million Google results on writerly jealousy say this is a plague without cure, though it does have the benefit of giving us all something to commiserate about. So long as we’re human and flawed, we’ll be jealous. So long as there are writers in every coffee shop and on the staff of every magazine and behind the cover of every one of the thousands of fresh books printed each year, there will be people for us to envy. Just, please, nobody else write about their homes for a while, okay? I think it’s my turn.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
As I rode the train home from work one afternoon a little over a year ago, I read the “gnostic truth of real estate” put forth by the realtor Frank Bascombe in Independence Day:
People never find or buy the house they say they want. A market economy, so I’ve learned, is not even remotely premised on anybody getting what he wants. The premise is that you’re presented with what you might’ve thought you didn’t want, but what’s available, whereupon you give in and start finding ways to feel good about it and yourself.
A moment later — timing that would have been ham-fisted had it taken place in a novel — my phone buzzed with a text from my husband. “Pack your bags” it read, accompanied by screenshot from Redfin showing a dilapidated property with a “sold” banner plastered across. We had gone to look at this house the previous week — a teardown monstrosity in an unhip San Francisco neighborhood adjacent to our own unhip San Francisco neighborhood. Listed for $338,000, at that moment the lowest price in the city, the house was called a “contractor’s special;” two of its three bedrooms were qualified on the listing agent’s half-assed flier as “legality unknown.” When we went to the open house, the same agent eyed my eight-months-pregnant stomach and advised me to cover my mouth and nose before stepping inside. My husband’s screenshot indicated that this house had been purchased by someone for $550,000, ostensibly in cash. Add to this the cost, whatever that should happen to be, of building an entirely new house in its place.
At the time, my husband and I lived in a rented, one-bedroom, 750-square-foot house that, like any standalone single-family dwelling in San Francisco, is not subject to rent control. When we learned that we were expecting a baby, we thought we should try to find something with more space (and rent control). Our landlady, who we think was born in the 1930s, cautioned us against a month-to-month lease. Her health was not good, she told us, and she mentioned, not for the first time, an ominous set of people she called “heirs” who would swoop in from the Central Valley and sell the house out from under us in the event of her death. She also told us that she had lived in the house with her parents until she was 23 years old, sleeping in the small dining room. Her counsel notwithstanding, obsessed with bourgeois aspirations of a second bedroom, we went month-to-month and began looking at Craigslist listings. The appearance of heirs, it turns out, would cast us — with baby, two cats, student loans, and no car — into a rental market where a transit-accessible two-bedroom apartment could exceed $5,000 per month in San Francisco and $3,000 in the East Bay.
Ludicrous prices are old hat to people in the Bay Area, who find themselves in the tiresome position of having thoroughly exhausted the topic of the housing situation but being nonetheless unable, most of the time, to talk about anything else. That is a feature of housing bubbles; in Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in that House, Meghan Daum’s account of her real estate travails in Los Angeles circa 2004, she wrote: “At the risk of making a perverse and offensive comparison, I truly don’t think I’d observed so much absorption with one topic since the attacks of September 11, 2001.”
We punched numbers into questionable online mortgage calculators and began touring open houses. Houses that listed for $279,000 and sold for $365,000 (East Oakland). Houses that listed for $365,000 and sold for $500,000 (West Oakland). Houses that listed for $499,000 and sold for $700,000 (San Francisco, barely). And these were the low, low prices of 2014. Median home prices reached $1.3 million at the end of last year.
People who have actually experienced home-ownership advise the uninitiated against getting romantic about it. But when you have a bun in the oven and are looking at Craigslist rentals, it is easy to invest the condition with near-sacred profundity (even before totting up the tax breaks that the government has seen fit to bestow upon the property-owning class). I began placing an outsize burden on every undistinguished property we saw; every dubious condo, every termite-eaten hovel miles from the train, none of which we could afford in any case. I pictured the dour heirs, and our growing family in one of the illegal basement in-laws listed for more than our current rent. Like V.S. Naipaul’s unforgettable Mr. Biswas, it seemed critical to find a place to call our own: “How terrible it would have been…to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and accommodated.”
Unlike that of Mr. Biswas, though, this is the housing account of an intensely privileged person, in both the local and the world-historical sense. We began our search at a time when the U.S. news was just starting to register the desperate people streaming out of Syria, when there were already one million displaced Syrians in Lebanon alone. A month before the baby was born I watched a presentation at work about an entire nation’s middle class decimated in only a couple of years — a cataclysm that will take generations to repair. And this is only the most recent and the most vivid cataclysm. There are people who have been living in camps for decades — people whose children and whose children’s children will be born outdoors.
In our local context, we are privileged because we do not live in a state of economic precarity, like many people in San Francisco and the East Bay who are being rapidly pushed out (often by people like us sniffing around for cheaper housing). Low-income people are disproportionately affected by the outlandish housing costs, and while it is a nice feature for us to live near family and friends, it’s a necessity for people who cannot afford regular childcare or do not get paid sick time. Just last Monday, activists shut down the Bay Bridge in a truly breathtaking action, protesting not only police killings of black people, but gentrification; first on their list of demands was “The immediate divestment of city funds for policing and investment in sustainable, affordable housing so Black, Brown and Indigenous people can remain in their hometowns of Oakland and San Francisco.” The housing concerns of people with a statistically high household income are not in and of themselves compelling, as this author points out, and if we have to leave the Bay Area we will find somewhere else to live.
Like everyone we know who lives in San Francisco, we have thought — we think every day — about moving away. And like everyone, we hope to stay. My husband works for the City of San Francisco and I work for UC Berkeley, which seem like important local institutions. Neither of us grew up in San Francisco, but four generations of my foremothers were born in California (although if you’re white, which I am, that just means your people were in on the ground floor of some original displacement). Even so, my baby, now a year old, has a grandmother and a great-grandmother a short train ride away. Why should we be the ones to move?, we think, just like everyone else. Self-righteous defiance is never a good feeling; add to it the knowledge of complicity in a fundamentally unequal society, evident in every public housing-adjacent Victorian flipped and sold for enormous profit, every gingerly-worded spiel from a realtor about Oakland neighborhoods, every crowd of white house-gawkers on streets where black people have lived for a century.
Our situation is not remotely dire — it is merely one of recalibration. Most Americans our age are letting go of the cherished, unexamined assumption that they will be able to give their own children the comforts — or preferably more comforts than — they themselves had. These are comforts captured in movies and books from the very recent past: I idly remember the movie Home Alone and my first thought is How the fuck did they afford that place? (Don’t get me started on Full House.) In The Sportswriter, the first of Richard Ford’s Bascombe novels, Frank is a writer and his wife doesn’t work; they have three small children and live in a house that they own:
We went on vacations…We paid bills, shopped, went to movies, bought cars and cameras and insurance, cooked out, went to cocktail parties, visited schools, and romanced each other in the sweet, cagey way of adults.
Yesterday’s magazine writer is today’s millionaire. As one of Meghan Daum’s friends lamented in her book: “…boomers live in mansions they bought for $67 in the early 1980s and we’re destined to live our lives paying rent to guys who wear tinted eyeglasses and Members Only jackets.”
The beloved children’s writer Beverly Cleary enshrined a much humbler vision of middle-class life on Klickitat street in Portland, Ore.; her characters Ramona and Beezus Quimby live in a modest but pleasant house with parents who haven’t finished college and who have a series of jobs that couldn’t comfortably support life in most urban areas today: shop clerk, office worker for a moving company, medical receptionist. Beezus and Ramona live in Portland, but many of Cleary’s less-well-known books — Mitch and Amy, Sister of the Bride, Fifteen — describe middle-class families giving their children good lives in nice Bay Area dwellings, the air scented with eucalyptus. Cleary herself was a California transplant; she attended UC Berkeley and lived around the Bay with her husband Clarence. In 1948, they bought a house in the Berkeley hills. She was a librarian-turned-writer and he was a contracts analyst at the university, a job which today commands a respectable annual salary between $49,000 and $65,000. But I’ve seen a two-bedroom, 792-foot-square-foot house in the same area list for over a million dollars.
After the news that our local wreck, the “contractor’s special,” sold for $200,000 over asking, I began to cling desperately to the rental we were in. Heavily pregnant, I lumbered around the place with loving purpose, directing my husband in the hanging of new curtains, adjusting the crib in the baby’s corner of our room, filling our closet with elaborate stacking drawers. I moved so far from my original position about the house’s size that I even schemed to buy it from our landlady, until it became clear that we couldn’t afford it at its current valuation.
There are spiritual implications for a person’s dwelling. As Frank Bascombe puts it, thinking about this anxious clients, the home they buy will
…partly determine what they’ll be worrying about but don’t yet know, what consoling window views they’ll be taking (or not), where they’ll have bitter arguments and make love, where and under what conditions they’ll feel trapped by life or safe from the storm.
I understood that the manic bursts of scrubbing and fussing and considering pillows that afflicted me during pregnancy were something called nesting, and were a known biological phenomenon. I was not expecting this mania to stick around. But, a lifetime slob, I now find myself in the kitchen making the practiced gestures of somebody else’s mother — wiping away a piece of wet fuzz or straightening a placemat, putting all of the puzzles together and stacking them in a corner at night. Some of this, I’m sure, is garden-variety patriarchy stuff that is bound to pop up after millennia of foremothers tidying up. But I am surprised by the feeling of total, whole-body well-being that comes over me when I’m in my special corner of the couch surveying the clean living room. And by the way this feeling seems obscurely connected to the panic-making wave of love that overcomes me at odd moments as I watch my daughter play on the living room rug (a rug, as it happens, that I coveted and lobbied and hoarded for and finally bought when it went on sale).
“Home is so sad,” wrote Philip Larkin, but he probably never held a baby on a soft rug on a sunny day in a nice room that he made for her. I know it’s very irritating to hear people describe the ways that having a child changed them, but this is one that really caught me off-balance: I’ve become house-proud. I think of all the other house-proud women leaving their special corners and favorite rugs in Syria and Iraq, holding close their precious children and stepping into the waves.
When we consider the people in camps, the people in the frigid sea off of Lesvos and Ayvalık, if we believe that all humans are brothers and sisters, none of us deserve stability in the broad moral sense. Aim the telescope back at America, where we have codified a national myth that if you have a good job you’ll have a nice place to live for as long as you want to live there. Articles like this one show how untrue that myth has been for vast swathes of our citizenry, and for how long it has been untrue. If you are a narcissist who was raised in a religious tradition you might feel that your own, absurdly mild housing anxiety is the opening sally of an absent-minded deity who has finally put down his paperback and noticed that things seem off-kilter. I know that I don’t deserve to have a nice place to live for as long as I want to live there, apart from the idea that all human beings deserve this. But that doesn’t mean I don’t — the we all don’t — want it real bad.
The “contractor’s special” went on the market again for $850,000, and sold for $1.1 million a couple of months ago. From the outside it’s still one of the ugliest houses in San Francisco. What ended up happening to us is the thing that you find happened to any San Franciscan who isn’t rich but has a good living situation: we got unreasonably lucky. When our baby was three months old, our next-door neighbors did the almost impossible and managed to buy a short-sale house with a special loan from the city. Our landlady, who also owns their place and is a deeply decent person, let us move in without significantly raising the rent. Deus ex machina. The people, meanwhile, who moved into our old place had been evicted from their decade-plus rental in another neighborhood; they are in their 50s or 60s and clearly paying more for less space than they used to have. Last week a woman strolling up and down our block told me she had grown up a few houses over, but that she couldn’t afford to live in the city anymore. “It should be me in there,” she said, gesturing at her old house. And begrudgingly corrected herself: “I wish it were me.”
We are favored, for now, in San Francisco’s zero-sum housing game. We dearly love our new place, even though it has wall-to-wall carpeting and it isn’t ours. We still don’t have rent control, but we hope for the best. We walk to the BART; we walk to the daycare, where our baby learns Cantonese words from her fellow sixth-generation Californians. What will the gods exact from us, for our good fortune? The twin specters of death and heirs loom all around. But death and heirs are waiting in the wings, I suppose, whether you rent or own.
I don’t think of essay collections as “unputdownable” — in fact, one of their virtues is that they can be put aside and easily revisited — and yet I couldn’t stop reading Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion. I would promise myself, just one more, only to make the same promise at the end of the next essay. When I came to the end of this too-short book, I ordered Daum’s 2001 debut essay collection, My Misspent Youth. It was fascinating to go back in time and encounter Daum’s younger voice. The essays of My Misspent Youth are charming and funny and honest, but they seem animated, in part, by Daum’s fear that she will never become a proper adult. In one of these earlier essays, “Toy Children”, Daum tries to pin down her hatred of dolls and concludes that she dislikes them because: “They’re my greatest nightmare come true. They never, ever grow up.”
Daum can relinquish that particular nightmare. The Unspeakable is a grown-up book that grapples with grown-up subjects: death, grief, regret, and aging. Press materials call it a report from “early middle age,” an expression that I have to believe made Daum laugh. By any actuarial or cultural measure, Daum is firmly in middle age: she’s in her 40s, she’s authored books, bought a house, gotten married, buried her mother, and been hospitalized for a major illness. I know all these things because she writes about them in her essays which, taken together, hit me more like a memoir. There’s a unity and depth to The Unspeakable that gives it more weight than My Misspent Youth.
The collection’s opening and closing pieces are the most straightforwardly autobiographical. The first essay, “Matricide”, about the death of Daum’s mother, ends with Daum’s own recovery from a life-threatening illness and then a miscarriage. She sees the line between life and death multiple times and yet she can’t locate any feelings of transcendence. There’s only bewilderment. Daum goes deeper into her bewilderment in the book’s closing essay, “Diary of a Coma,” which documents her rapid mental and physical collapse after contracting a freak virus. In the wake of her coma, Daum is struck by how little has changed for her, despite the fact that she almost died: “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.”
In other words, Daum won’t be giving out any life lessons. The only piece of advice she offers is “if you’re good at something, do it a lot. If you’re bad at something, just don’t do it”. This comes from an essay “On Not Being A Foodie”, in which Daum issues this maxim: “One of the great pleasures of trends is the option of sitting them out.”
Daum paints herself as a quitter, a romantic, someone who has lived from delusion to delusion, following whims across the country from New York City to the Great Plains, and finally, to Los Angeles, where she now lives. To hear her tell it, you might not realize that she has authored a novel, (The Quality of Life Report), a memoir (Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House), and of course, My Misspent Youth. She’s also a columnist at the Los Angeles Times, a plum and rare writing position in this day and age. But, of course, no one really feels the weight of his or her accomplishments, just as no one feels grown up. In one of my favorite essays, “Not What It Used To Be,” Daum attempts to answer the question that I believe everyone confronts around age 35: “How did I get to middle-aged without actually growing up?” Appropriately, the essay begins with Daum revisiting the “grown-ups” of her youth: Hope and Michael in Thirtysomething and the cast of the The Big Chill. Watching them, Daum is shocked to realize that these baby boomer characters are all younger than her. Even worse, she finds that she can relate to her parents’ generation more easily than to the millenials: “The vagaries of the digital revolution mean that I have more in common with people twenty years my senior than I do with people seven years my junior.”
“Not What It Used To Be” can be read as a sequel to “My Misspent Youth,” the essay that leant its title to Daum’s debut collection and possibly made her career. Published in The New Yorker in 1999, “My Misspent Youth,” is Daum’s goodbye letter to New York City and to her youth, a city and state of mind she can no longer afford to live in. It’s reminiscent of Joan Didion’s much-imitated “Goodbye To All That,” in which Didion describes what it feels like to fall out of love with New York City. Daum dispenses with Didion’s vague melancholy and gets down to facts and figures, sharing rent bills and Visa debts, letting us in on a truth that thousands of New York’s aspiring writers have since had to face: it is impossible to live in Manhattan (and now Brooklyn) on a freelancer’s salary. To read “My Misspent Youth” now is to see, not only the glimmer of Michael Bloomberg’s Manhattan, but also a certain kind wistful-yet-gritty confessional writing taking shape, the kind of personal essay that prizes self-awareness, but is also defiantly self-indulgent. It’s the kind of essay that will go a little long and will get a little niche, because it can, thanks to the variety and flexibility of literary outlets on the Internet.
Part of the joke of “My Misspent Youth” is that Daum was young when she wrote it, and there was a funny bravado to her premature nostalgia. That bravado is gone in “Not What It Used To Be,” as Daum truly says goodbye to the possibilities of youth:
I am nostalgic for my twenties (most of them, anyway; twenty and twenty-one were squandered at college; twenty-four was kind of a wash, too) but I can tell you for sure that they weren’t as great as I now crack them up to be. I was always broke, I was often lonely, and I had some really terrible clothes. But my life was shiny and unblemished. Everything was ahead of me…I found my twenties to be a time of continual surprise.
Later, Daum stages a conversation between her younger and older selves, in which her older self does not have the heart to tell her younger self that “some of the records you are now listening to — the ones you play while you stare out the window and think about the five million different ways your life might go — will be unbearable to listen to in twenty years. They will be unbearable not because they will sound dated and trite but because they will sound like the lining of your soul.”
I love the romanticism of that phrase, “the lining of your soul” and I love how in this and other essays, Daum is willing to shed her generation’s supposed penchant for irony and talk about the things that have lined her soul. There’s a wonderful appreciation of Joni Mitchell, followed by a mournful essay about Daum’s beloved dog, Rex — two topics that many essayists would probably instinctively avoid. But Daum pulls them off, first by being funny, and second by honestly acknowledging these dual influences. Here’s Daum on Joni Mitchell: “I used to think Joni Mitchell was a big influence on my writing…now, however, I realize that Joni didn’t shape my approach to language as much as my approach to my own emotions.” And here’s Daum on grieving her dog: “No one understands that you cannot answer the phone for a week. No one likes it when you say the barbaric truth, which that because pets occupy a sphere of uncomplicated, unfluctuating love, 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 members.”
Just to throw out a few other Daum-isms—here’s her description of Anthropologie: “A twirling motion in the form of an international brand”. Of Los Angeles: “a place where wildness and domestication are forever running into each other.” Of Nicole Kidman: “a walking Vermeer.” She’s pithy like a newspaper columnist needs to be, but she doesn’t gloss over life’s uncertainties and regrets. In “Difference Maker,” an essay about Daum’s attempts to help foster children who have, in the parlance of the business, “experienced a lot of loss,” Daum confronts her own losses, specifically, her decision not to have children. Even though Daum is secure in her choice, she comes to realize that her efforts at volunteerism are her own “complicated form of baby craziness:”
As wary as I’ve always been of our culture’s rote idealization — even obsessive sanctification — of the bond between parent and child, it seems that I fell for a whole other kind of myth. I fell for the myth of the village. I fell for the idea that nurture from a loving adoptive community could triumph over the abuses of horrible parent.
The sneaky power of cultural myths is a persistent theme in Daum’s work. In the preface to My Misspent Youth, Daum says her essays are about “the romantic notions that screw up real life while we’re not looking.” This may be too pat a formulation, but you could say that The Unspeakable is about the way real life screws up romantic notions. That is, Daum has lived a lot in the 15 years since she published My Misspent Youth, and these essays manage to communicate a great deal of that lived experience. In its own understated, comic way, The Unspeakable is a very ambitious book, one that attempts to chart a personal evolution, while at the same time acknowledging that the idea of personal growth is at best absurd. “I am no wiser or evolved than I was before,” Daum writes at the end of The Unspeakable. She may not consider herself wiser, but her writing in these essays is finer than it has ever been.