Is 21st century American culture wimpy? Our discourse is often paralyzed by a fear of offending, a fealty to “hearing both sides,” exhaustion and its discontents. We retreat into platitudinous sentimentality. Even those reckonings with loss, with unspeakable feelings, are often streamlined, made palatable for publication, or otherwise unprocessed. We turn away. Maybe we’ve seen too much, crossed some rubicon where even the worst shit seems surreal, as if war only existed on videotape, and heartbreak only on Medium dot com.
Along comes Meghan Daum, with a book of essays that attempt to get really real with readers. Down with the authenticity-industrial complex: Daum pries under the surface of expectation and civility, uprooting essayistic and emotional norms to discover uglier truths, expressed with candor. In The Unspeakable, as she writes in the book’s introduction, she “wanted to examine the ways in which so many aspects of contemporary American life… seem to come shrink-wrapped in a layer of bathos.” What follows are ten essays, written specifically for the book, covering a range of subjects— death, dogs, Joni Mitchell, foodie culture, lesbianism, belonging, selfishness, reluctance to bear children—as well as the conversations we
have about those subjects, and the private thoughts we frequently keep to ourselves.
As a compendium of examinations of mawkishness, The Unspeakable largely succeeds. In “Matricide,” the opening essay and by some measure the strongest in the book, Daum recounts her experience watching her mother die from cancer. The essay is also an occasion for the writer to confront her lifelong dislike for her mother—“I had a hard time not seeing her as a fraud,” she writes—an observation couched as much in honesty as a lack of empathy. One of the unspeakable truths of life is that our parents are oftentimes the people for whom we feel the least amount of empathy.
“Matricide” opens up into an examination of all that is expected of loved ones who care for the
dying, who are expected to be dutiful, vigilant, and to feel sad. To Daum, the rituals around dying feel performative; she cares for her mother, but pretends to be asleep one night in the hospital room while her mother shits herself and calls out vainly for a nurse. “I had been slightly worried that when my mother actually died I’d be more grief-stricken than I’d anticipated, that I’d faint or lose my breath or at least finally unleash the tears that I’d been unable to shed all this time,” Daum writes. “But none of that happened. I was as relieved as I planned to be.”
However, despite its subject matter, this is not an altogether heavy book, and Daum, although she mines her past for nuggets, tells us little about herself. She’s a f luid and vivid writer in the personal essay form—diving deep into her fascinations and obsessions, surfacing with some pearl of wisdom. The pleasure of reading The Unspeakable comes from reveling in Daum’s voice, which is casual, funny, au courant. She f lings pointed observations off the cuff with alacrity: men she’s dated were regarded “less as potential life mates than as characters in a movie I happened to have wandered into”; Anthropologie is “to adult women what princesses are to little girls…a twirling motion in the form of an international brand”; the Joni Mitchell problem is “either being not liked or being liked for the wrong reasons.”
But all too often, these pieces flounder. They’re meandering when they seek to be multi-chambered; uninviting when they seek to be mature, processed. Several sputter toward the end, lacking the twist of revelation or recognition or confluence that would elevate them to greatness. A few of them, including “The Dog Exception” and “On Not Being a Foodie,” cover ground so welltrodden that they stumble into cliche. The worst of them, like “Honorary Dyke,” in which Daum recounts her brief jag as an “aspirational lesbian” (“otherwise known as the basically hetero broad for whom the more glamorous expressions of dykery hold a distinct if perpetually enigmatic allure”), leverage caricatured personal experiences as a way to make overly-broad generalizations. The stated aim of The Unspeakable is noble, perhaps even necessary, in an age glutted with personal essays that read like raw emotional dumps. But Daum plays it too safe to be truly incisive. It’s not enough to merely speak the unspeakable.