A little Daphne Merkin goes a long way. Luckily, the cultural critic and novelist serves up her precise, pointed, and often personal observations in bite-size pieces, 46 of which are collected here in her first anthology in more than 15 years. Together, these essays (all of which have been previously published) showcase a fearless intelligence, although one that might be a bit too intense to take in all at once.
Organized into six groups, the pieces range from literary analyses (Alice Munro, Margaret Drabble) to the kind of intimate exposé Merkin has become known for (“In My Head I’m Always Thin”). Not included, however, is her mildly infamous piece on the erotics of spanking, “a two-decade-old essay that will undoubtedly dog me for the rest of my days,” she acknowledges in her introduction. And while the earliest, “Life on a Dare (Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald),’’ dates back to 1980, the topics have been well chosen to reflect ongoing interests, although some will question whether Courtney Love belongs in the same larger grouping, “Stardust and Ashes,” with Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana.
The organizing principle, loosely discussed in the title essay (from 2006), is “wounded icons,” a category that for Merkin includes her mother, Richard Burton, Monroe, and Woody Allen. In it, she recalls not only her own early insecurities and beginnings as a writer, but the advice Allen gave her when they began to correspond, that she should push beyond the book reviews she was then writing: “Dare to take up space,” is how she interpreted his words. Make your mark.
Now 60, Merkin has done this with aplomb and an underlying political sensibility that is extremely rational and, thus, feminist. In “Against Lip Gloss or, New Notes on Camp,” for example, she dissects the “inherently unsettling concept” of long-lasting cosmetics. “I believe there is something irrevocably ruinous about a culture in which women are expected to go around with their lips in a permanent state of shiny readiness,” she writes and goes on to explain why, invoking gender politics, aesthetics, and JonBenét Ramsey.
She is not above taking the easy shot: “At the risk of drawing ire, I would like to suggest that there is something profoundly awry about the way our culture treats pets,” she writes. But before anyone could accuse her of cruelty, she cites the $1,380 Hermès leash and collar set that almost anyone would call extravagant. More often, however, Merkin addresses more complicated issues, or at least ones calling for either honest self-examination or subtlety. Discussing popular culture’s take on homosexuality and gay-straight relationships (“So Not a Fag Hag”), she mulls over sexual tension and its absence, and the “competitive edge” that, she says, too often mars friendships between same gendered/oriented friends.
When she tackles her own issues, she is at her most unsparing: “My long-standing obsession with my teeth is not something I’m particularly proud of,” she admits. While she could say the same about any part of her aging body (and often does), this discomfort does not prevent her from making smart, sharp observations about herself or from examining the reaction of the world around her to her changing but clearly female physique. “In my mind there was something immutably glamorous and grown-up about the very confinement of a girdle,” she recalls, of “a woman, willing to suffer extreme discomfort in aid of — let’s strip to the bare truth of it — capturing and keeping the male gaze.”
As Merkin explained in the title essay, it was the combination of her insecurities and her learned resilience in the face of these anxieties that helped make her a writer. Both forces are on display here, with all the perspicacity the author has become known for. That intimacy and the intensity can be overpowering, but taken in small doses — one essay at a time — these are stunning works, enough to hold us for at least another decade.
Clea Simon is the author of 14 mysteries. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.