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Caleb Crain | The Nation

Caleb Crain

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Caleb Crain

Caleb Crain is the author of the novel Necessary Errors, recently published by Penguin Books.

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As a child, while waiting for my weekly piano lesson to start, I used to read with pleasure Erma Bombeck's column as it appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. What prehomosexual boy can resist a sardonic housewife? Somewhere in my teenage years, however, I lost the taste, and so it was difficult for me to enjoy Douglas Coupland's latest novel, All Families Are Psychotic, even though the tone of voice was unexpectedly familiar.

"Life is a bowl of chainsaws," says Janet Drummond, the novel's 65-year-old heroine, as she establishes a rapport with Florian, the fey, Eurotrashy villain who is heir to a pharmaceuticals fortune. Bombeck added cherry pits to the proverb; Coupland has added chainsaws. But the sensibility is the same: a comfortable, petulant knowingness about the world. It's wacky out there, or so Coupland would have you believe.

The speech rhythms in All Families Are Psychotic derive from sitcoms. Characters describe each other with tags like "That cheesy slut," and they silence each other with lines like "Drive, Howie." The prose style is aesthetically bankrupt, so much so that a reviewer feels a little silly and priggish for pointing it out. A lake is described as "a very lake-y looking lake." A house is described as "an event in itself." One suspects Coupland of writing badly on purpose, as if he meant to suggest that sloppiness of perception might be raised to a metaphysical disposition--a strategy for approaching the world.

Either that or he's just sloppy. On page 25, the one-armed astronaut Sarah Drummond explains to her underachieving brother Wade, "In a weird way I think doing things is easier than not doing things." Evidently the lesson does not sink in, because on page 73, Sarah feels obliged to repeat herself: "There are simply these things that need to be done, and it's simpler to do them than to not do them." (Now how did that note card get back in the pile?) On page 254, Coupland has Janet's ex-husband Ted speak a line of dialogue in a room that he and his second wife left two pages before. By the time Wade explains to his mother on page 270 which super power he would have if he were a cartoon character, he seems to have forgotten the details of the conversation he had with his girlfriend on the same topic, back on page 130.

It's no doubt unwise to take this novel too seriously. Unfortunately, Coupland, famous for having tapped into the zeitgeist of 1991 with Generation X, has chosen a topic that is hard to take unseriously: AIDS. Janet becomes infected with HIV when a bullet fired by Ted passes through their HIV-positive son Wade and into her. Ted happens to be shooting at Wade because he has just discovered that Wade has slept with Ted's new wife, Nickie, and Nickie, too, becomes infected. Another character, Beth, thinks she has HIV, but her case turns out to be a false positive. Ted, in turn, comes down with liver cancer (though no one suggests that it's HIV-related).

Or maybe Coupland isn't writing about AIDS. It's hard to tell. The name of the disease is not mentioned until page 46; everyone infected with HIV is cured, more or less by magic; and the plot is so baroque that Wade's recap of events to Sarah, two-thirds of the way into the book, omits AIDS altogether. (Skip to the next paragraph if you don't like plot summaries.)

"I'm standing outside a trailer in Orlando's shittiest neighborhood. It belongs to a guy named Kevin whose arm was shot up in the restaurant holdup yesterday. By the way, Mom and Nickie are best friends now. What else..." Probably best not to tell her that we're hiding out here from the thugs who kidnapped her husband. Should I go on? Why not. "And then a few hours ago, me, Mom, Dad and Bryan rescued Shw from these freaky rich people in Daytona Beach who were going to lock Shw in their basement prison, steal her baby, and then probably kill her--so suddenly Shw's all nicey-nicey, and Bryan's like a pig in clover. Oh, by the way, Shw's real name is Emily."

Kevin is the book's one gay character, a waiter kept mostly offstage, whose trailer home is described as "faggy." Shw was not toilet-trained as a child and was allowed to choose her own name (it stands for Sogetsu Hernando Watanabe) as a teenager.

Should I go on? Not for much longer. There's nothing wrong in principle with a farce about AIDS. I liked David Feinberg's Eighty-Sixed, for example. Everything is or should be laughable, even sad and infuriating things. But Coupland jump-cuts directly from smarty-pants mania to saccharine happy ending, with no emotional in-between. In this novel, the feelings stirred up by AIDS range from "And these HIV drug cocktail thingies make you grow fat deposits in the weirdest places--I could end up with six tits" to "This HIV thing, now that I think about it, is almost like a relief--it's like we're a part of a big death club," until finally the reader witnesses "a simple peaceful wave of light passing through" the characters as they are cured. At best, Coupland's humor will help to exhaust the shock value of the disease.

All Families Are Psychotic is not a meanspirited book. Nor is there any psychosis in it. "Psychotic," here, is just a synonym for "wacky"--a word to athetize people who can't be understood without the expense of further attention. In fact, Coupland's characters are homely, safe neurotics. As Janet shouts to Florian, late in the novel, "Don't let Bryan or Emily be killed or beaten--they're not evil--they're merely idiots." Fair enough. But it's not quite fair of Janet to claim that "we're people, not cartoons" when her son discovers her in bed with her ex-husband. Coupland hasn't spent enough attention on the Drummond family for us to see how it is unhappy in its own way.

"These pieces are not confessions," Meghan Daum declares in the foreword to My Misspent Youth, an anthology of articles she wrote for The New Yorker, Harper's and other magazines. Nonsense. Maybe, as she claims, "a few of the stories I tell never even happened," but the first time I read her book, I finished it in a single afternoon, mesmerized and spluttering, because all the essays have the flavor of confession.

They taste, that is, like a hot fudge sundae: salty sweet. Or more exactly, they taste like an inside-out hot fudge sundae: sweet, then salty. The surface is chilly, pale, slick, sugary. Beneath is a dark hot goo, like half-coagulated blood. The difference, in texture and temperature, is exhilarating, and probably not good for you.

Just over 30, Daum has been anthologized in The KGB Bar Reader and championed by Thomas Beller, the novelist-scenester-editor of the literary journal Open City. Until she decamped last year to Nebraska (she writes about her new life there in the latest issue of O), Daum was as urbane a writer as they come. Like Joan Didion, to whom she is often compared, she is a nonfiction switch-hitter: an empathetic reporter and a provocative autobiographer. (The reported essay on flight attendants reprinted here, which Open City rescued after a men's magazine killed it, is a gem.) She owes her fame, however, to her confessions. In print she has admitted to unsafe sex, inventoried her debts and spending habits, and chronicled her waitership at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, much the way David Sedaris chronicled his elfhood at Macy's SantaLand. In the first person lies her weakness--and her strength.

In "Creative Writers and Daydreaming," Freud explained that the egotism of most daydreams repels everyone except the person who dreamed them up. In successful literature, however, the same fantasies manage to be pleasing, because great writers are able to short-circuit the reader's envy and contempt‚ to trick readers into identifying with daydreams they would ordinarily roll their eyes at. When Charles Dickens or Jane Austen share their fantasies, you enjoy them as if they were your own.

This is not, however, how confessions work. Memoirists don't convince you to overcome your envy and contempt; they expect and plan for those reactions. You can't read Meghan Daum's essays without becoming enraged. If someone tells you that she has been financially compelled to move from New York City to Nebraska because she only earned $40,000 in 1997 and $59,000 in 1998, you will roll your eyes. My patience lapsed when Daum claimed that financial anxiety had blocked her writing by rendering her unable to think "about anything other than how to make a payment on whatever bill was sitting on my desk, most likely weeks overdue." Weeks? And she calls herself a writer? She can't hope that the reader will sympathize; there is another game afoot. Arousal to indignation is in fact one of the pleasures Daum is offering. Of course she's infuriating. In real life, people always are.

Like all real people, Daum has unexamined, often self-serving ideas about herself. Unlike most real people, she writes about them uncensored. When they hurt Daum and those around her, the reader feels anger, as if Daum were a friend who needs a talking-to. But if he's honest with himself, the reader may also recognize a few of his own self-serving ideas among Daum's‚ particularly if he too is a freelance writer who has found it hard to support himself in New York City. This is the hot goo. We all know it's wrong to believe that just because you are a writer, you deserve a high-bourgeois lifestyle and boundless love. And we know it's wrong to think that if you haven't received these prizes yet, it's because you don't yet write well enough. But if you are a writer, this is the sort of nonsense you believe, or used to believe until you were disillusioned. Disillusionment may have improved you as a person, but to spend a little stolen time with the old cheats is nonetheless a sticky, high-calorie pleasure.

If it were up to me, everyone who aspired to make a living as a writer would be obliged, at an early age, to read Thoreau's "Life without Principle," Fitzgerald's "The Crack-Up," Gissing's New Grub Street and Connolly's Enemies of Promise. "My Misspent Youth," the title essay in Daum's collection, may belong in this canon, not for Daum's insight, which is no better than Fitzgerald's, but for her lyricism, which rivals Connolly's.

This is the chilly, pale, slick, sugary surface. Daum says she learned how to write sentences from her father, a music composer. And on the evidence of her prose style, I have no trouble believing her claim that she was in her day the second-best high school oboist in New Jersey, even without practicing. She has the ease of a natural. Note the rhythms in the opening lines of her essay "Toy Children":

Though I had a stuffed-animal collection that rivaled the inventory of a Toys "R" Us, I was a child that hated dolls. By hate, I'm not talking about a cool indifference. I'm talking about a palpable loathing, a dislike so intense that my salient memory of doll ownership concerns a plastic baby whose duty among my playthings consisted solely of being thrown against the wall repeatedly and then smudged with a combination of red lipstick, purple Crayola, and, when available, spaghetti sauce. This was done in an effort to simulate severe injury, possibly even internal bleeding, and this doll, who, if I recall correctly, had eyes that opened and shut and therefore had come preassigned with the name Baby Drowsy, spent most of her time in a shoe box in my closet. This was the intensive care unit, the place where, when I could no longer stand the sight of Baby Drowsy's fat, contusion-ridden face, I would Scotch tape a folded Kleenex to her forehead and announce to my mother that Baby Drowsy had been in yet another massive car wreck.

The sentences here start off compact and declarative. The first two bring to mind the humorously flat disavowals in Frank O'Hara's poem "Autobiographia Literaria": "I hated dolls and I/hated games, animals were/not friendly and birds/flew away." But then, like a beetle lifting its chitin to reveal gossamer wings, out from under these assertions Daum unfolds subordinate clauses full of color and ambivalence, linked with a delicacy that requires the reader's attention but never flummoxes him. She segues from aphorism to excursus as gracefully as Hazlitt, who loved hate in similar cadences: "Is it pride?" Hazlitt wondered. "Is it envy? Is it the force of contrast? Is it weakness or malice? But so it is, that there is a secret affinity, a hankering after evil in the human mind, and that it takes a perverse, but a fortunate delight in mischief, since it is a never-failing source of satisfaction."

But let's get back to the hot goo. Nearly every piece in My Misspent Youth contains an understanding of Daum and the world that is appealing and false. She succeeds in wrecking some of them; others resist her. For a reviewer to set forth exactly why and how Daum has failed to undeceive herself would be a bit like doing the crossword puzzle as a public service. Not quite taking her at her word is part of the reader's fun. But I can't resist a brief look at two issues: love and money.

In her first essay, "On the Fringes of the Physical World," and in her last, "Variations on Grief," Daum describes relationships with men who loved and disappointed her. The first, a sportswriter she calls Pete, failed to live up to the promise of his e-mail courtship, when he wooed her under the America Online moniker PFSlider. The second, a rich, idle aesthete she calls Brian, who died of a respiratory infection at age 22, let Daum down by not having made anything of his short life.

Though the men are different, their relationships with Daum are strangely alike. Both surprised Daum by spoiling her. "He gave me all of what I'd never realized I wanted.... I'd never seen anything like it," she writes of Pete/PFSlider. "I have never in my life allowed a person to cater to my whims the way he did," she writes of Brian. Daum is aware of the lopsidedness. "I slurped up his attention like some kind of dying animal," she writes of Pete/PFSlider. "I liked him because he didn't hold me in contempt for refusing to reciprocate the romantic aspects of his affection for me," she writes of Brian. But in both cases, she is reluctant to relate her longing for attention to the phoniness she experiences later, when she meets Pete face to face and when she tries to mourn Brian. Instead she blames the Internet for disguising Pete's nature (when, in fact, his first e-mail, "is this the real meghan daum?" perfectly reveals the nature of his seduction), and she somewhat mystically links Brian's death to his lack of interest in hard work (when, in fact, Brian had at least one difficult achievement to his credit: He loved a writer unrequitedly).

Compliant phoniness--and its unfailing sidekick, imperfectly muffled rage--is an occupational hazard for writers. They are, after all, people who have made a profession out of saying whatever it takes to get attention. But it is for her commentary on another hazard of the striving writer's life that Daum has become almost famous: unsecured debt--and its unfailing sidekick, a rampaging sense of socioeconomic entitlement.

In "My Misspent Youth," Daum explains that at age 17 she visited a music copyist's prewar apartment at West End Avenue and 104th Street in Manhattan. The copyist had oak floors, "faded Persian rugs...and NPR humming from the speakers." I imagine he had a subscription to The Nation, too. At that moment, Daum imprinted the style of life she wanted, and like the hero of Knut Hamsun's novel Hunger--the one who needlessly starves himself--she insisted on procuring it by writing.

It can't be done, of course--not today, not on the Upper West Side, not without the innovative credit-card use that Bush and Congress are about to consign to the dustbin of history. (Memo to Vince Passaro: Cash out now.) This is no surprise. What redeems Daum's essay from mere self-pity (I failed) or backhanded boast (If I couldn't make it, no one can) is an embarrassing insight, which can be phrased as a question: Would you live in Thoreau's Walden shack if it had wall-to-wall shag carpeting?

Daum would not. "When you get to a certain age you learn what the deal breakers are," she writes. "I was never interested in being rich. I just wanted to live in a place with oak floors." Beneath the humor is an unbecoming truth, rarely spoken aloud. Suffering for art brings socioeconomic compromise, which, in a culture stratified by market segment, looks cheap rather than austere. Literature is a high-bourgeois taste. Even if it brings in only a petty-bourgeois salary, to accept petty-bourgeois taste would feel like giving up hope on it as a profession. Thus carpet, dust ruffles, pantyhose, Maxwell House and Billy Joel give Daum the heebie-jeebies. When she finally runs, it's to Nebraska. She can't afford to stop in Jersey City.

Except for the scorn of Billy Joel, I sympathize. A writer as gifted as Daum deserves to live in a prewar UWS 1BR fully reno w/hdwd flrs & EIK. I can't, however, agree with the conclusion she draws from her exile. (It may, after all, be temporary. Despite "Goodbye to All That," Joan Didion has not made it a point of pride to stay away.) Wanting to live in a place with oak floors does demonstrate an interest in being rich. There's nothing wrong with that. As Samuel Johnson said, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." But if Daum thought it would be evident to a 17-year-old's glance how a writer could pursue wealth with integrity, or combine ambition with gentility, she must have been living in an uptown world.