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Life in the flyover zone

Meghan Daum trades essays for the novel

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Literary aspirants might spend years “workshopping” their novels and story collections in the fiction factories of university MFA programs, but few bother themselves with essays. Perhaps it’s the insolvency of the form—when has a Harper’s piece ever blossomed into a Miramax deal? Maybe it’s because she burst onto the scene with just such a collection (My Misspent Youth) that Meghan Daum has been so unanimously likened to Joan Didion. Both women came to prominence in their youth with eloquent, journalistic essays that bounce between the personal and, if not the overtly political, then at least the social longings that transcend their personal predicaments.

Daum enjoys decoding class signifiers like wall-to-wall carpeting and bed ruffles, and repudiating the cultural tendency to emblematize our passions. She writes personal essays on subjects that initially appear to be narcissistic gobbledygook—about an Internet romance for example—yet manages to skirt the genre’s endemic solipsism by connecting to and analyzing broader cultural contradictions.

Daum’s debut novel, The Quality of Life Report, expands on the material with the tale of Lucinda Trout, a late-twentysomething lifestyle correspondent who covers the thong beat for a Today-styled morning show. She poses such penetrating questions as, “Are scones the new muffin?” and “Yogurt: What happened? It just went away.”

To flee what she believes is an inauthentic life in a city of pathological impatience and anxiety, she pitches herself as the new heartland correspondent, a human guinea pig for New York’s cramped apartment dwellers who long to leave but can’t. Despite the trepidation of her urbanocentric peer and professional circles, she embarks to a land of affordable apartments where radio stations play little else but Peter Frampton. However, Trout’s regional experiment takes a surprising twist when she finds herself shacked up with Mason, an artsy slacker who bathes in a river and has three children by as many different women.

In the right light, Mason’s a dead ringer for her Sam Shepherd pastoral ideal. But upon their cohabitation in a farmhouse—complete with horse, pig and dog named, yup, Sam Shepherd—Lucinda’s Little House on the Prairie fantasy spirals out of control. In short order she becomes the 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 a fortune on his meth habit.

Daum’s fans will be neither disappointed nor ecstatic with her fiction debut. The narrative structure too often feels like an artifice for her musings. Rather than a naturally unfolding yarn, we’re delivered a stumbling and often predictable tale of a city girl shedding her cosmopolitan neurosis by going native. That said, Daum’s observational wit and analysis are on par with the best of her nonfiction. I couldn’t help but wish we could forgo the obligatory plot-driving characters and remain in Lucinda Trout’s head as she kicked it freestyle on the subjects of place, ambition, and internecine middle-class mores.

The satire on display here is a bit more enjoyable than the characters themselves. Coming up for skewering are the baby boomer liberals of Lucinda’s book club, who subscribe to the simplest of feminist politics while inflating the significance of their ’60s-era activism. Because Daum’s exposition is of such high caliber and so damn funny, her dialogue seems all the more clunky, with characters speaking less from any three-dimensional sense of themselves than merely getting, or keeping, a scene moving. A few gags, like the subliterate e-mails Lucinda exchanges with her vacuous media-whore boss, are milked sour.

But for passages like the following, Daum can be forgiven the sins a first-time novelist is almost obliged to commit:

“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 My Misspent Youth know that, like Lucinda Trout, 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 the bohemian demon of imminent poverty, what Martin Amis aptly describes as “tramp dread.”

It’s hard to say if Daum and the novel form are suitable bedfellows. Many of the ideas explored in these pages could have been excavated more quickly and thoroughly in her native essay. But perhaps that’s the reductive quick fix, the sock-it-to-me cityspeak of a quick-to-pigeonhole critic. If even her flawed novels are this much fun, it will be a thrill to see whose lives she’ll report on next.

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