“Authenticity has long been a major interest of mine,” declares L.A. Times columnist and author Meghan Daum in her trenchant and deeply funny book of essays, The Unspeakable. It’s an interest that many of us likely share, though in practice it can be a slippery thing. Unlike Fabergé eggs and Royal Doulton shepherdesses, most people and experiences don’t come with certificates of authenticity. So for the most part we rely on instinct: authenticity is something we think we know when we see (though as so many fallen celebrities and high-profile art forgeries demonstrate, we often don’t).
Using her life as raw material (as she has in works including My Misspent Youth), Daum’s stated aim is to get beyond what she calls “preassigned emotional responses.” Nowhere does she do this to as devastating effect as in the first essay, “Matricide,” about her fraught relationship with her late mother, a woman she describes as childishly prone to trying on personalities and who, apparently, would not have passed the Sheila Heti swab test: “What I always felt was that she simply didn’t know how to be.” When her mother was dying of cancer, Daum wondered if the end, when it came, might trigger some kind of emotional catharsis in her. It didn’t. Instead Daum found herself feeling “as relieved as I’d planned to be.”
“Matricide” is so good, in fact, that the nine other and, by any standard, excellent pieces pale slightly in comparison to its supernova. That being said, it’s clear why Daum decided to open with it, as it provides an emotional key to a good deal of what comes after. It sheds light, for instance, on Daum’s decision not to have kids, and the resulting pall—referred to as “the Central Sadness”—this cast on her marriage. That essay, “Difference Maker,” also gives a devastating account of Daum’s experiences as a court-appointed advocate for fostered youth.
Whenever Daum strays from her authenticity quest performative metaphors start to creep in (her mother, tellingly, was a theatre teacher). At one point she describes reaching out to hold her mother’s hand in her hospital bed, not out of empathy, but “because I felt that if we were in a play this would surely be part of the stage directions.” Commitment-averse and peripatetic for much of her life, Daum claims, similarly, that a good deal of her pre-marriage dating was done “for the fieldwork aspect … I regarded my love interest less as potential life mates than as characters in a movie I happened to have wandered into”
Daum lives in L.A., so it’s not entirely surprising that two of the essays are about celebrities. Both are doozies, though the best and most cringeworthy is “Invisible City,” which includes Daum’s account of a charades-themed party at Nora Ephron’s house where, as the only non-celebrity in attendance, she was treated as invisible by guests including Rob Reiner, Steve Martin, Ariana Huffington and Larry David. Daum’s humiliation would later be eclipsed by Nicole Kidman’s after the group openly mocked her movie Days of Thunder not knowing what it was or that she had starred in it. “The Joni Mitchell Problem,” meanwhile, offers a jaw-dropping account of how Daum ended up—essentially through happenstance—bonding with the reclusive lifelong idol over an hours-long dinner only to misplace Mitchell’s personal phone number afterwards.
Daum’s wit often conjures David Sedaris—the current patent holder on the humorous personal essay—though Daum overall is cooler, more phlegmatic (except when it comes to her kryptonite: dogs). She also goes to darker places. Still, it’s impossible not to see the irony when Daum tells the story of having her book launch inadvertently scuttled by Sedaris, who, unbeknownst to her, was in town for a book signing the same night. After contemplating how to handle the sole fan who had come to see her, Daum quickly came to a decision: “It was obvious that the only decent thing to do was to take her to see David Sedaris.”
—Emily Donaldson (www.emilydonaldson.com) is a freelance critic and editor