Stumbling on the Real Thing: Accidental Gen-X Wisdom

My Misspent Youth , by Meghan Daum. Open City Press, 177 pages, $14.

If you’re still, like, jaded and withdrawn, saving your enthusiasm for a good nonfat latte or a parking spot near the Virgin megastore, then you won’t get the point of Meghan Daum. This 30-year-old’s writing is all about owning up to it: her big, romantic feelings for New York, her McCarthy-era fantasies (we’re talking Mary McCarthy), her horror of the unexamined middle-American life embodied in wall-to-wall carpeting.

In essays that first appeared in Harper’s , Nerve , GQ and elsewhere, Ms. Daum has offered herself as a thoughtful, laid-back representative of the earnestly unearnest Generation X, a group whose chief influence, as she once hoped to write, was the early videos of R.E.M., with their aesthetic of “realness” (those emblematic earth-tones now eclipsed by the candy-colored glow of millennial pop: RuPaul, Britney Spears, the XFL). Typically assigned to write on “fresh” and “timely” topics like polyamory, she is actually most suited to the personal essay the more personal, the more painful, the better. The best pieces here, and even the funniest, hinge on a moment of ruthless self-recognition, the point at which, while looking elsewhere, the author stumbles on the body in the path: the real thing, whether it is loneliness or grief or her belated fiscal maturity.

Maturity in every sense is one of the underlying themes of My Misspent Youth , since Ms. Daum makes a practice of identifying and mocking in herself all those markers of difference that bright young people have perennially clung to. Her need for wooden floors is especially suspect, requiring an essay of its own. “Carpet makes me want to kill myself,” she announces flatly. It is one thing to acknowledge a bias, quite another to ferret out its messy psychological origins. Carpet, as Ms. Daum admits, is a class issue, though not a socioeconomic one: “The kind of class that I associate with wood floors is the kind of class that emerges out of an anxiety about being classy. People who must have wood floors are people who need to convey the message that they’re quite possibly better than most people. They’re people who leave The New York Review of Books on the coffee table but keep People in the bedroom.”

In “American Shiksa,” it is her taste for Jewish men that brands her as one of these intellectual class-seekers. The evolution from blond girl to shiksa came on in adolescence, when other girls were developing crushes on football players or Latino heartthrobs: “Herein began a life of loving Jews, of having a crush on the Alex Reiger character on Taxi , of preferring Bernstein to Woodward, of deciding that I was naturally neurotic, that angst flattered me, that I was smarter than my blonde counterparts, that I was funnier than my parents, that I was among the ‘other’ chosen.” If Meghan Daum were any more severe, she might become the Joan Didion of her generation but she’s never this hard on anyone except herself. Her method is to filter American culture through her own life and calmly remark on its effects, like a lab rabbit subjected to a long-term social experiment that may or may not be responsible for its eczema and its eye tic.

The story she returns to most frequently is her own, entertainingly recounted in the title essay, which originally appeared in The New Yorker . She was a suburban child from northern New Jersey, with interesting, musical parents who also eschewed wall-to-wall carpeting. One day her father, a composer, brought young Meghan into Manhattan to drop off a score at the modest Upper West Side apartment of a music copyist. Although there was nothing remarkable about the place Ms. Daum remembers it as “a standard prewar with moldings around the ceilings,” and recalls looking out the living-room windows onto the streets below her life was forever changed. From that moment on, every decision the young woman made the friends she pursued, the colleges she applied to “was based on an unwavering determination to live in a prewar, oak-floored apartment on, or at least in the immediate vicinity of, 104th Street and West End Avenue.” She would be a New York writer.

Her dilemma, of course, was that the world to which she aspired no longer existed, at least not without wealth. Not by the time she graduated from Vassar, and not even at the time of that fateful visit to West End Avenue. “I’ve always been somebody who exerts a great deal of energy trying to get my realities to match my fantasies,” Ms. Daum explains, “even if the fantasies are made from materials that are no longer manufactured.” She did manage to land an entry-level job at a glossy magazine and to support herself for a year and to afford (with roommates) an oak-floored apartment within four blocks of 104th Street and West End Avenue. Gradually, her definition of a New York life expanded to include a few dinners out every week, fresh flowers, a fax machine. This was hardly a rake’s progress, although in retrospect the dollars spent have become to Ms. Daum “an abstraction, an intangible avenue towards self-expression, a mere vehicle of style.” Disillusioned with the publishing world, she quit her job to enter the graduate writing program at Columbia University; carelessly, she took out student loans that would amount to $60,000. Later she realized that she had “stopped making decisions that were appropriate for my situation and started making a rich person’s decisions.”

Here was the literal misspending of Meghan Daum’s youth: the financial and emotional investment in the New York dream. Her regrets call to mind Cynthia Ozick’s memoir of her own misspent youth, “The Lesson of the Master,” in which she mourned the years she had devoted to emulating the elderly, bald-headed Henry James instead of pursuing the urgent, sloppy business of living. “All of us will lose our youth,” Ms. Ozick reminds us, “and some of us, alas, have lost it already; but not all of us will pin the loss on Henry James.”

My Misspent Youth was written just before Ms. Daum left New York for rural Nebraska; one imagines that her youthful longings have regained some of their luster against the backdrop of corn and more corn. Or maybe not. In her brief introduction, Ms. Daum suggests that her essays are “all about the way intense life experiences take on the qualities of scenes from movies. They are about remoteness. They are about missing the point.” But she is wrong. The emotional essence of Ms. Daum’s work is not remoteness, but engagement. She’s willing to be surprised. She’s willing to look bad. These essays are about finding the point, even as the writer continues to expose with irritation her teenage self and her harmlessly snobbish ambitions.

Regina Marler is the author of Bloomsbury Pie (Henry Holt). Stumbling on the Real Thing: Accidental Gen-X Wisdom