“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.