Sometimes I discover writers whose brains I’d love to poke around in, whose ideas are either so different from mine or so inherently unique that to read something of theirs is like tiptoeing into another universe. If I had to be honest, I’d say these are the authors to whom I generally gravitate—my love of reading started as an escape (from family drama, from friend drama, from my longtime and sometimes overwhelming discomfort in my own skin), and so I’m drawn to books whose perspectives are desperately unfamiliar. I want to be taken somewhere. I want to miss my subway stop and stay up late and cancel brunch plans because of a book. (Despite the obnoxious literary backlash against Stephen King, my SK fondness comes from his ability to inspire such intense fleeting obsessions).
By contrast, when reading something that hits close to home or feels poignant in its observations of the everyday, I set a disproportionately high bar. The exact specifications of that bar probably look a little something like vintage David Sedaris, but the overall takeaway is that a fictional page-turner has only to distract me; with nonfiction essays, I expect to be moved. Which is all to say that my reaction to Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion can only be described as
Daum has made headlines more recently for Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, which I want to read ASAP, and The Unspeakable is in some ways a broader version of that idea, in that consciously choosing childlessness still carries some antiquated societal stigma, and therefore goes under-discussed. “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,” Daum writes in the prologue.
Which isn’t to say that we don’t ever mention the topics outlined in this compact collection of essays. One covers Daum’s taxing relationship with her mother, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer; another outlines her flirtation with lesbianism; another her aforementioned decision not to procreate. It’s not that these topics are intrinsically off-limits, but rather that they are so rarely discussed openly, or with anything approaching candor. The Unspeakable puts that reality in relief, as Daum is nothing if not candid.
“For all the lip service we pay to ‘getting real,’ we remain a culture whose discourse is largely rooted in platitudes. We are told—and in turn tell others—that illness and suffering isn’t a ruthless injustice, but a journey of hope. Finding disappointment in places where we’re supposed to find joy isn’t a sign of having different priorities as much as having an insufficiently healthy outlook. We love redemption stories and silver linings. We believe in overcoming adversity, in putting the past behind us, in everyday miracles. We like the idea that everything happens for a reason. When confronted with the suggestion that life is random or that suffering is not always transcendent we’re apt to not only accuse the suggester of rudeness but also pity him for his negative worldview. To reject sentimentality, or even question it, isn’t just uncivilized, it’s practically un-American.
That bit, also from The Unspeakable’s prologue, is a decent nod to Daum’s worldview, which isn’t negative so much as direct, forthright. But her essays are as much anecdote as analysis, and any soliloquizing belies the ease with which Daum also scrutinizes, criticizes or even openly mocks herself.
The Unspeakable is not mean-spirited, or snarky. It’s not a battle cry against being happy, or even against being ignorantly blissful. It’s more of an extended observation, a literary “What’s the deal with..” where the with is institutionalized emotional political correctness. Best of all, the book is executed with a stylistic elegance that’s part part Sedaris, part Joan Didion.
From “Matricide,” as Daum is speaking to her mother about reincarnation.
“‘Maybe you’ll be a bird. You’ll fly around and look at everything from up high.”
‘I don’t want to be a bird,’ she said.
It’s amazing what the living expect of the dying. We expect wisdom, insight, bursts of clarity that are then reported back to the undying in the urgent staccato of a telegram: I have the answer. Stop. They’re watching for me. Stop. Everyone who died before. Stop. And they look great. Stop. We expect them to reminisce over photos, to accept apologies and to make them, to be sad, to be angry, to be grateful. We expect them to clear our consciences, to confirm our fantasies. We expect them to get excited about the idea of being a bird.”
In an essay called “Honorary Dyke,” Daum talks about having always been more existentially fascinated by women than men, and outlines several females from her childhood and young adulthood with whom she had at one point or another been, amiably, stalking. Not like following them home stalking; rather, stalking intellectually, emotionally, sometimes sartorially. These “mystery girls,” as she labels them, were in some ways the people around whom Daum developed her own ideas about what it is to be female. Many women will find in Daum their own mystery girl, including me.
TITLE: The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion
AUTHOR: Meghan Daum
PAGES: 242 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (editor), Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House
SORTA LIKE: Ephron, Lebowitz, Sedaris, Didion
FIRST LINE: “People who weren’t there like to say that my mother died at home surrounded by loving family.”