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'Unspeakable' Gives Voice To Things We All Think, But Don't Say

Meghan Daum's The Unspeakable is nominally a collection of essays about the conversations we all want to partake in but hold back from; the thoughts we all have but refuse to admit out loud.

And, in several respects, the book fits the bill. "Matricide," the collection's opening essay, recounts Daum's experience watching her mother die from gallbladder cancer. But the piece is equally an exploration of their troubled relationship, and Daum is open about her grievances. "I had a hard time not seeing her as a fraud," she says at one point.

But even in the book's most confessional and revealing essays, Daum circles something more universal and more vital than unseemly topics of conversation: On a deeper level, The Unspeakable is about growing up. About growing up as a process by which we become increasingly entrenched in social norms and during which our decisions about whether to conform or rebel increasingly tilt toward the former.

That's not to say that Daum's book has no edge to it. Particularly when discussing the pressures on women to get married and have kids, Daum rails against the notion that any life can be constrained by a list of socially mandated achievements. But what makes her arguments so compelling is that they come from a place of insecurity. Daum's convictions on the matter are repeatedly pushing against her feeling that perhaps she wants the very things she once summarily dismissed.

That's the conflict underlying "The Honorary Dyke," in which Daum defines her "butchness" against a cultural norm, against "the fetishistic attention paid to makeovers and diets and weddings and baby showers and enormous walk-in closets," but does so within a specific context. Daum has, as she writes in other essays, left behind her exploratory 20s and 30s, a time when she dated broadly and casually, ran off to live in Nebraska, and tried on different sexual identities. So if she practices rebellion now, she does only as part of a settled-down life.

That observation, to be clear, is not a criticism on my part. There's nothing wrong with settling down — with wanting it or with doing it. And there are plenty of amusing insights in The Unspeakable that necessitate that particular perspective, such as Daum's memory of being taken out to a gay bar in her 20s: "The whole scene freaked me out enough to make me realize that I was not a lesbian so much as someone who appreciated a good haircut."

The pleasure of reading The Unspeakable comes largely from how, in any given paragraph, Daum is capable of having clever thoughts like that — and expressing them so wittily. The Unspeakable is equally compelling for the interconnections between its pieces, all of which were written exclusively for the collection. As Daum examines her relationships to social standards and aging, she also dissects the performances that are implicit to both, whether it's the melodramatic demonstration of concern that Daum puts on when getting news about her mother's health, or the way that she feels drawn to cliched visions of true love gleaned from television ads. In treating this issue, Daum is characteristically honest — aware of how false such performances are but also frank and unembarrassed about her participation in them.

Still, while it's satisfying to track these concerns, it's not enough to entirely conceal that, at the level of the individual essay, The Unspeakable often flounders. Daum's pieces cover well-trodden ground like foodie culture, Joni Mitchell and dog obsessions. And too often, while exceedingly well-written, humorous and candid, these pieces lack the twist — the suddenly fresh perspective — that would push them to greatness.

"Invisible City," for example, centers on a celebrity-studded party that Daum attends at Nora Ephron's house in Los Angeles. It's a pleasant, awkward story, but it only sets up an altogether middling conclusion about how Daum ended up finding her place in LA. "Eventually we all shake out into the thing we were supposed to be all along," she expounds vaguely and anti-climactically. A few too many of her essays end similarly deflated.

You could chalk up the risk-free nature of such conclusions to a mantra Daum expresses in "On Not Being a Foodie": "My goal in life is to be content," she writes, adding that "the key to contentment is to live life to the fullest within the confines of your comfort zone." The Unspeakable, at the very least, fits with such a worldview: It satisfies and absorbs you, but rarely does it push any boundaries.

Tomas Hachard is an assistant editor at Guernica magazine and a film and book critic for NPR and The LA Review of Books.

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Tomas Hachard