Literary aspirants might spend years on a first novel or story collection, but few bother with essays. Perhaps it's the insolvency of the form -- when has a Harper's piece ever blossomed into a Happy Meal? Meghan Daum burst onto the literary scene with My Misspent Youth, a collection of slightly personal essays that earned her nearly unanimous sentence to the tough-shoes-to-fill shadow of Joan Didion.
Compiled in her first book was a New Yorker essay on a failed Internet romance -- before the subject was pummeled into banality -- and a New York Times Book Review piece on life in the privileged milieu of New York editorial assistants. Daum decodes class signifiers like wall-to-wall carpeting and bed ruffles; she writes personal essays that skirt the genre's endemic narcissism by analyzing larger cultural contradictions.
Daum's debut novel, The Quality of Life Report, expands on these themes with the tale of Lucinda Trout, a 20-something lifestyle correspondent for a Today-styled morning show where she poses such penetrating questions as: "Are scones the new muffin?" and "Yogurt. What happened? It just went away."
To flee what she perceives as an inauthentic life in a city of pathological impatience, she pitches her editor a feature of dispatches from the heartland town of Prairie City. Despite the trepidations of her urbanocentric peer group, she embarks to a land of affordable apartments and welcoming lesbians. But her life takes a surprising twist when she finds herself shacked up with Mason, an artsy middle-aged slacker who bathes in a river and has three children by as many different women.
In the right light, Mason fits Lucinda's Sam Shepherd pastoral ideal. But upon closer contact, her Little House on the Prairie fantasy turns into a low-intensity nightmare. She becomes a de facto mother of Mason's children, wiping poo from the legs of an incontinent daughter while shouldering the financial responsibilities as her partner squanders his fortune on his methamphetamine habit.
Daum's fans will be neither disappointed nor ecstatic with her fiction debut. The structure too often feels like nothing more than an artifice for her musings. That said, her musings are on par with the best of her nonfiction -- a genuine delight. I couldn't help but wish we could remain in Lucinda Trout's head as she kicks it freestyle on subjects ranging from place and ambition to internecine middle-class mores. But for narrative expedience we're forced to return to less-compelling drivers of the narrative.
Because Daum's exposition is of such high caliber (and so damn funny), her dialogue seems all the more clunky. She also milks a few gags sour, like the subliterate e-mails of her media whore boss.
But for passages like this, she can be forgiven all the sins of a first-time novelist:
We were so careful in the city. We checked ourselves at every corner. We were careful whom we lent things to, whom we invited inside, whom we fell in love with ... We dated for years before risking cohabitation. We didn't marry until we were sure we couldn't do better. To act sooner, to not agonize over every option until they all practically lost their appeal, would have been to risk disaster. We were packed so tightly and moving so rapidly that one misstep could knock us permanently off course. We always seemed an instant away from losing everything.
Those familiar with her first book know that, like her main character, Meghan Daum fled New York for the affordable hardwood floors of Lincoln, Neb. As she is already adapting this novel for the screen, it's clear she's a long way from returning to the bohemian poverty of her misspent youth, what Martin Amis rightly calls "tramp dread." If even her flawed first novel is this much fun, it will be a pleasure to see where she goes from here.
-- John Dicker