Book review: The Unspeakable, by Meghan Daum
I’ve been in the mood to read a good essay collection, and oh man – oh man, was this it.
Meghan Daum is a columnist for the L.A. Times and contributor to outlets like Slate and NPR. And she’s an unflinchingly honest essayist. The Unspeakable tells stories about subjects that are uncomfortable to discuss, maybe uncomfortable even to think about in your own head. But they make up some integral part of her and, it seems, many of the rest of us. As she puts it, “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.”
Such topics include not loving our parents enough, being labeled a “killjoy” for what’s more likely introversion or a quiet personality with quiet interests, not wanting children, and being more attached to animals than most people. Things like that.
If you’re the parent of a big family, or planning on becoming one, you probably won’t like this book. If your mother is your best friend, you probably won’t like it. If you love bungee jumping, ditto. “I know this is the opposite of how most people think – or at least say they think.” She’s describing just one situation here, but it could sum up the whole book.
She’s mastered gallows humor, writing in “Matricide”, one of the standouts, that she fast-tracked her wedding so her dying mother could attend. But her mother took over because she “…effectively wanted to turn her only daughter’s wedding into a funeral she could orchestrate and attend herself.” You laugh, feel a little guilty, but it is funny. There are laughable moments and cryable moments.
Yet she’s poignant and poetic in describing the surreal, wrenching signs that death is imminent. About the changes in her mother’s voice as death came closer, “It was the sound of fog rolling in over a life.” That line affected me so much, as it would anyone who’s suffered a loss and heard what she’s talking about. I had to pause and straighten out my thoughts. She makes observations like that, that stop you in your tracks – touching on regret, uncertainty, death and illness, and an underlying, often unidentifiable sadness. And she has this subtle way of blending her personal story with a greater truth or concept, it’s almost seamless.
“By desire I am not referring to apartments I wanted to occupy or furniture I wanted to buy or even people I was attracted to (well, I’m referring to those things a little) but, rather, a sensation I can only describe as the ache of not being there yet. If my older self had descended upon my twenty-something self and informed her that she’d spend the next several decades reminiscing about this time in her life, the twenty-something self would have been more than a little disconcerted, possibly even devastated.” I’ve had that horrific realization myself. Related: “I would be the youngest person in the room for a very long time.” I remember that feeling too, just as I remember when it suddenly never seemed to be true anymore.
Somehow, reading her takes on these topics makes them less scary, less secretive, less able to be shameful. Speaking about them takes away the power they accrue when we push them down and relegate them to silence.
Daum also has a dry sense of humor regarding her own work and success, writing about giving public talks despite being skeptical of the audience and the purpose when “a generous and un-turn-downable sum of $2,500” is involved. Or one talk when just a single person, a sweetly devoted mega-fan, showed up but the rest of the city’s literati were attending David Sedaris’s talk on the same evening.
I think those who like her style are those who find themselves pleasantly surprised by how many of her blunt, honest statements apply to them, too. In addition to being comforted by her straightforward discussions (because they’re issues I’ve thought about myself) I breathed a sigh of relief: I’m not alone in thinking something that isn’t a popular opinion or expectation shared by the masses.
And more than like it, I loved this book – I have too much in common with her not to, right down to our deep love and belief in the under-ratedness of Lipton onion soup mix (I want us to be friends). Even on things we don’t share, like her love of dogs, she manages to explain herself and the emotion or psychology behind her convictions so thoroughly that I could still find something to relate to; her reasoning struck the right chords. She even had me enjoying essays about topics that I’ve never had the slightest interest in reading essays about: death, aging, illness, music. But she made it all work.
One essay, “Honorary Dyke”, understandably caught her a lot of flack, which is a shame because I think it was a poor choice for inclusion and doesn’t showcase how good her writing is, yet it’s what often gets mentioned in the same breath as this collection. Daum is straight, but besides a not-so-serious college experimentation, her interest in lesbians is just that she likes a lot of the same things they do and wants to be liked and accepted by them.
She drew ire for categorizing some women by what kind of “butch” they were, including women she only knows from the media. It’s definitely a tone-deaf, inappropriate piece and weaker than the rest, but I had the feeling she thought it wasn’t offensive because lesbian friends had probably given it the ok. Of course, that’s a tough gauge to apply to the general population, and I can see where and why it bothered people.
This piece aside, I think it’s a remarkable collection. I’m glad it exists.
The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion
by Meghan Daum
published November 18, 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux