My Misspent Youth, essays by Meghan Daum
My introduction to Daum and her essays was Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House, her account of wanting, finding, losing and finding the ideal home. It’s a memoir of coming into one’s own in regard to matters of money—real estate, mortgages, income and outflow. The events in My Misspent Youth precedes that chronicle, though lays a groundwork for the hurdles to come, in essays that offer what Ira Glass called “a clarity and intensity that just makes you feel awake.”
The title essay, which first appeared in the New Yorker, centers not on the coming of age follies of Daum’s youth, but the realities that plague her when she finally arrives in the Shangri-La of her imagination, Manhattan. The thrill of arrival and personal edification in living in a place you’ve always dreamed of is covered as well in Life Would Be Perfect. Here though, the focus is less on the ineffable pull of certain domiciles and more on the literal meaning of the title: the level of debt the author accrues working a low-paying editorial job and living in New York City.
If there is a line of demarcation in this story, a single moment where I crossed the boundary between debtlessness and total financial mayhem, it’s the first dollar that I put toward achieving a life that had less to with overt wealth than with what I perceived as intellectual New York bohemianism…And even though I was having a great time and becoming a better writer, the truth was that the year I entered graduate school was the year I stopped making decisions that were appropriate for my situation and began making a rich person’s decisions.
That kind of self-diagnosis, its clarity and objectivity, is what gives Daum’s essays their addictive quality. Her sentences and paragraphs are constructed in a smooth, well-paced style, and if there are emotional anchors she misses, you don’t mind. You might find yourself asking, “But why the pull to the trappings of a rich person?” but before you know it, Daum’s irresistible voice has pulled you back.
The voice too, is so intimate, it’s a surprise when the time-bound details suddenly come up. The collection was released in 2001, and an essay like “On the Fringes of the Physical World,” about the email and chat-based “courtship” between Daum and a fan (who calls himself PFSlider), via AOL seems almost quaint now. Still relevant though, given we now have dating apps, is the strange and courtly aura that distinguishes the chronicle of lively banter via messaging. That’s still real, as is the ultimate disappointment that often comes when the chats surpass than the real thing.
Most powerful is “Variations on Grief,” the account of a friend who dies suddenly from a deadly airborne hantavirus Daum’s friend contracts simply walking down the street. Brian is his name, he is her “oldest friend,” and the way in which she manages, with utter empathy, to rail against the brief life he lived and at the same time mourn it, is stunning. That tonal range, moving between characterizing his life as “a string of failures,” and “unremarkable,” a life too-coddled by his wealthy parents, is sharply contrasted with Daum’s sense of culpability—in not caring enough, being a good enough friend, and in the complications that follow his death. The essay is set in the pre-9/11 era, absent of that tragedy. And yet, the account, which is more about Daum’s failure as a person as it is an untimely death, grows even more tragic as she, in turn, comforts Brian’s grieving father. As he constantly asks her about his son, she aims to do her best with recollections, but when she no longer recall the memories, she invents them. For this reader, that contradictory state, like the chaos and irrationality of grief, transforms the surface concerns of money and lifestyle by unpacking them against a bleak reality of mortality, guilt, and self-delusion.