Film critics who write novels are often suspected of trying to enter the world of filmmaking through the back door. In Vincent Canby's case, let us dispose of the suspicion. His first novel, [Living Quarters ,] although it begins with an act of violence, soon turns into a recounting of the life, loves, and schizophrenia of a madcap heiress from the Midwest. (p. 26)
Mr. Canby's prose is flat and dry, glinting now and then with satiric, disenchanted humor. The book's method is that of remembered gossip, told in monotone, but not monotonously. Little in the way of sympathy is allowed any of the characters—so careful is the author in keeping any sentiment or unseemly emotion from coloring the tale. All incidents of the past, he seems to be saying, have the same weight in memory, whether it be a failed movie actress who takes her life or a jaded Frenchman who suffers the embarrassment of a dog's suddenly urinating against his leg. The text might have been taken from Ecclesiastes: All is vanity. Yet Daisianna, caught in off-hand glimpses that add up to a portrait, emerges as memorable, as does an aspect of America that no longer knows where it is going. Mr. Canby doesn't reach for very much with his first novel, but what he gives us is done with professional care and an amused appreciation of the not always lovable quirkiness of his characters. (p. 27)
Hollis Alpert, in Saturday Review (© 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 8, 1975.Webster Schott ▻
"Living Quarters" is the story of a charmingly psychotic woman in the deranged late 20th century. It's told in language that shimmers. It's a story that emerges from plots that explore human longing, suffering and pleasure among the civilized on three continents as though seeking a statement about a condition beyond articulation….
If I understand "Living Quarters" correctly, it suggests, while offering champagne-and-acid entertainment, that the present environment requires a streak of madness if you want to live in it at all. Deception, betrayal, exploitation, faithlessness are bred into us by our surroundings, along with our drinking habits and a drive to be made whole through the uses of the flesh. We need not wonder why Daisianna gets off scot-free. Vincent Canby's society cultivates all kinds of nuts.
Meanwhile, despite his confirmation of what tolerant people have been thinking for some time, Canby gives us art, so that we can taste the truth and not find it unbearably bitter. His novel explodes with forms and techniques: pictures of places that look like paintings, intense short stories and strange yarns that surface briefly in the midst of other events, home movies and scenarios, vivid tableaux of families, characters moving as though documented on film.
Some of the pleasure of this novel lies in seeing Canby build this jeweled structure that goes backward and forward in time as it reports on society's mental health by watching the weather inside human heads. But most of the pleasure won't submit to scrupulous examination: it's inherent in the novel in a larger sense. Canby creates a world; he makes people live there, luxuriating in desire, waste, comic boredom. And he insists that we believe and understand them by almost becoming them—he has that power….
Vincent Canby's film criticism in The Times shows that he was born to think and to write. This first novel says that he may have been born to write fiction. (pp. 4-5)
Webster Schott, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 13, 1975.Julian Barnes ▻
[There's] much generic ambiguity about Vincent Canby's [Living Quarters ]: the crime, victim and culprit are swiftly identified, and the book sets off in a series of ever-retreating flashbacks to root out the social and psychological background to the event. Daisianna turns out to be an archetypal American whore/bitch/goddess, pill-slugging, schizophrenic, religioso, selfish and idle; her friends and family are scarcely less neurotically self-indulgent. Even straight Jimmy Barnes, Daisianna's lawyer, who actively seeks an exciting life, turns out to have a wrecky streak, and is laid low by alcohol, troilism and divorce. The flashbacks eventually (if bafflingly) reach flash-back-of-beyond with an ancestor's journal; and we wait for Mr. Canby to drop his tone of glazed detachment and lay a moral on us. Jimmy runs into it on an archaeological site. Pondering on a handy cross-section of the dig, he is told that there are 17 different periods of human habitation represented there. Some layers have been squashed down by later generations into a mere 15 inches of clay. It's quite a thought. (p. 285)
Julian Barnes, in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 20, 1976.BENJAMIN DeMOTT ▻
Can a chilly, misanthropic, half-crippled, middle-aged, twice-divorced, multimillionaire WASP whose hobby is researching the Albigensian heresies find happiness with a radical Jewish journalist who's 20 years younger than he, depressed by his money and resolved "never, never [to] marry a goy?"
Yes and no is the answer delivered in ["Unnatural Scenery"]…. Marshall Lewis Henderson, the WASP multimillionaire, and Jackie Gold, the Jewish journalist, commence living together at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas…. Their lovemaking is animated (Henderson is half -crippled, repeat) as is their talk, and over a period of nine years the culture gap narrows a bit….
Finding happiness is one thing, though, and preserving it is another. Miss Gold shows up late for dinner one night, and objects when Marshall Henderson punishes her tardiness by pummeling her with lobster salad. She turns to an Esquire editor for comfort and, soon thereafter, splits for good.
Such personal disasters are an old story for the hero, a loser, despite his money, almost from birth…. Adding things up after the Jackie defeat, Henderson decides that "something has to be done, a gesture made." And the book culminates in his search for an ideal late-20th-century American gesture of protest against things as they are.
"Unnatural Scenery" is shrewdly paced, nimbly written and full of ingenious cross-cutting, fast.
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[Unnatural Scenery ] whirrs with rapid, centrifugal force, yet gives little indication of the generative impulse behind all the noise—other than possibly an interest in the geographical lore of the state of Virginia.
Marshall Lewis Henderson, the narrator, is one of those larger-than-life figures who is, at best, representative of the world around him and, at worst, an oafish presence. His childhood is depicted from a bewildering variety of angles, featuring elements of gentility and reclusiveness that usually characterize WASP boyhoods; alongside these are contrasting elements of dissipation and familial violence that typify novels dealing with the Southern gentry….
Unnatural Scenery is "antic," which means that believability is sacrificed in the interests of diversity. Canby orchestrates his novel like a ringmaster at a three-ring circus, constantly sparking the flagging attention of his audience with new acts and daredevil performers. The book is admittedly entertaining in parts, yet only because it is so furiously au courant. The humor seldom penetrates…. [For] all its efforts Unnatural Scenery palls frequently, mainly because Canby supplies us with heaps of information in place of characterization. Marshall remains a distant curiosity rather than the touching survivor he is meant to be. The reader, meanwhile, remains very much on the outside, wondering what all the damned fuss is about. (p. 15)
Daphne Merkin, in The New Leader (© 1979 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 29, 1979.Start your free trial with eNotes to access more than 30,000 study guides. Get help with any book. Can’t find the answer you're looking for? Popular Topics
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"The truth is I've been something of a bifurcated, high/low girl from the very start," Daphne Merkin declares in The Fame Lunches. her first collection of essays since Dreaming of Hitler in 1997. This new anthology gathers 45 wide-ranging essays that straddle the high/low cultural faultline with aplomb, weighing in on subjects as diverse as W.G. Sebald, Jean Rhys, Margaret Drabble, Courtney Love, lip gloss, kabbalah and handbags as "the top fashion signifier."
Merkin made her name as a trenchant book and cultural critic, but — as she herself acknowledges — she's far more widely known for her "bold, almost reckless self-disclosure — whether the topic happens to be the terrors of pregnancy, the erotics of spanking (a two-decade-old essay that will undoubtedly dog me for the rest of my days), or my habitation on various psychiatric wards."
The Fame Lunches contains no such startling confidences. Its emphasis is on Merkin's cultural writings, dating back to 1980. Eschewing articles about her Botox treatments, lifelong psychotherapy or the allure of Prince Charles and Camilla, the collection seems designed to refresh Merkin's reputation as an astute literary critic. But although unfailingly intelligent, it is better enjoyed piecemeal than cover to cover. Plowing immoderately through these 45 essays, one after another, is a binge that can lead to opinion overload and celebrity glut. And as with any anthology, some subjects are bound to strike a reader's fancy more than others. Despite Merkin's best efforts, I just couldn't muster much interest in Sandra Dee or Courtney Love, for example.
Rest assured that readers looking for more personal material won't be entirely disappointed: In a 2013 essay reprinted from Elle. "In My Head I'm Always Thin," Merkin discusses her dismay about having "sized myself out of Barneys and most of the clothes I coveted." "Our Money, Ourselves," first published in The New Yorker in 1999, grapples with the confusing mixed messages she received about money as a child; she and her five siblings grew up in a well-staffed Park Avenue duplex, yet they fought for second helpings. Merkin, whose financier father endowed hospitals, yeshivas and Merkin Concert Hall in Manhattan, writes incisively: "At some point I took to muttering darkly to my mother that charity began at home, but she would always fix me with a contemptuous look and ask, 'And what exactly is it that you lack?' She managed to make me feel ungrateful and grabby at once."
Merkin's celebrity profiles and reviews of biographies are revealing in a less direct way. She is repeatedly drawn to what she calls "wounded icons" and "fragile sorts," people who share her sense of "emotional deprivation" and of "not having been loved" as a child. This group includes Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, Princess Diana, Mike Tyson, Virginia Woolf and Nuala O'Faolain.
Her choice of subjects also repeatedly reveals the high value she places on openness to change, "a certain porousness — an unfiltered receptivity to the comings and goings of the zeitgeist." In her estimation, Henry Roth had it, retaining "a certain plasticity of temperament through his life, a receptivity to the imprinting of new experience" that enabled him to finally follow his 1934 masterpiece, Call It Sleep. with his six-volume Mercy of a Rude Stream six decades later. The designer Geoffrey Beene, who, with his "layered and self-reflective aesthetic. made it okay for me to take fashion seriously," also had it. "Beene remained open to new ideas throughout his career, reinventing the connection between clothes and lifestyle many times over," Merkin writes.
"A Tip of the Hat," Merkin's judicious 2009 tribute to John Updike shortly after his death, exemplifies her literary chops. She highlights his remarkable range and attention to detail, his "honed, even finicky words," but also explains how, after 1990, "His vaunted cosmopolitanism began to feel dated." She adds, with a dapper flourish: "He began to seem like a man who always wore a hat to work." Bingo.
The essays included in The Fame Lunches obviously have been carefully selected for their enduring fascination. Since Merkin wrote about them, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald continue to generate unflagging interest, Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize, Michael Jackson has died, and Cate Blanchett has gone on to even greater acclaim for her depiction of a character based on that most wounded of icons, Blanche DuBois, in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine. One wishes that Merkin had provided postscripts, not just for the late-blooming Irish writer Nuala O'Faolain — who touchingly left Merkin "a small gift of money" when she died of cancer at 68 in 2008 — but for some of her other subjects.
On the other hand, perhaps it's best to leave readers wanting more.
Read an excerpt of The Fame Lunches
Daphne Miriam Merkin (born 30 May 1954 in New York City) is a literary critic, essayist and novelist. Merkin is a graduate of Barnard College. She also attended Columbia University's graduate program in English literature.
She began her career as a book critic for Commentary magazine, The New Republic. and The New Leader. where she wrote a book column and later, a movie column. In 1986, she became an editor with the publishing house of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. In 1997, after Tina Brown became editor of The New Yorker. Merkin became a film critic for the magazine. She also wrote extensively on books and became known for her frank and lyrical forays into autobiography; her personal essays tackled subjects ranging from her battle with depression, to her predilection for spanking, to the unacknowledged complexities of growing up rich on Park Avenue. In 2005, she joined The New York Times Magazine as a contributing writer. She is the author of a novel, Enchantment (1984) as well as a collection of essays, Dreaming of Hitler (1997).
Her father was the wealthy philanthropist Hermann Merkin. Her brother is J. Ezra Merkin, a hedge fund manager and philanthropist who was embroiled in the Bernard Madoff scandal.
Merkin teaches writing at the 92nd Street Y. She married and divorced Michael Brod, and lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with her daughter, Zoe. She also is a contributing editor to Tablet Magazine.See also
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DAPHNE MERKIN, a novelist and critic, has been a staff writer for the New. His articles and reviews have appeared in the TLS, the New.
Apr 2, 2013. by Robert F. Worth; May 13; The New Yorker for “The Implosion,” February. Elle for three columns by Daphne Merkin “Portrait of a Lady,” March;. Furthermore, “for the sake of her articles, Erdely has trekked through Tibet.
Apr 20, 2012. Writing for The New Yorker, Katha Pollitt delivered a scathing review of. scandalous articles are done—Daphne Merkin likes to be spanked!
The New York-based Merkin, a contributor to Elle and a former staff writer for The New Yorker, is as brilliant waxing on about the heady stuff.
Nov 11, 2014. Catherine Lacey has been called “a very gifted writer and thinker” by the New Yorker Daphne Merkin, and her debut was praised as “the most.
For Daphne Merkin, her increasing weight was taboo, even in her own. but instead of carrying a sense of mission with me back to New York.Half Of 2013's National Magazine Award Finalists Are Women, For.
Dec 11, 2014. with an article titled “Lean Dunham and the uncertain territory of memoir. Daphne Merkin, who has written openly in the New Yorker about.Daphne Merkin's new essay collection straddles the high/low cultural divide with aplomb. Eschewing articles about her Botox treatments, lifelong. "Our Money, Ourselves," first published in The New Yorker in 1999.
Althouse Have you seen the cover of Newsweek?
Ye Olde Village Voice Blogging & Blog-rolling Articles and Reviews. January 21 at 9 PM, Walter Reade Theater New York Jewish Film Festival December 22, 2013. A. O. Scott, film critic for The New York Times, and Daphne Merkin, journalist and former film critic for The New Yorker, join J. Hoberman, senior film critic.
“Lush and uncensored” essays (Village Voice) on spanking during sex, shopping, Martin Scorcese, Israel, breast reduction, Gary Gilmore, depression, and other matters, by “one of the few contemporary essayists who have (and deserve) a following” (NewMore “Lush and uncensored” essays (Village Voice) on spanking during sex, shopping, Martin Scorcese, Israel, breast reduction, Gary Gilmore, depression, and other matters, by “one of the few contemporary essayists who have (and deserve) a following” (New York). “Everything Daphne Merkin writes is so smart, it shines” (Washington Post Book World).
To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up .Community Reviews
Monica rated it it was ok
almost 7 years ago
I liked her spanking essay, which I think I've read before. I skipped or skimmed a lot of the book, though.
Linda rated it it was ok
almost 5 years ago
It was not what I thought it would be. I was a bit disappointed as too graphic for my reading comfort.
Myla rated it really liked it
almost 6 years ago
Love the essay format, love most of the topics.
Sept. 24, 2014 10:55 p.m. ET
Two New Yorkers sat down for some real talk over dinner for all to hear at the East Village restaurant, Contrada. On Monday night, a group of literary diners celebrated the book critic and essayist Daphne Merkin and her new book.
Erica Jong, the author of "Fear of Flying," peppered Ms. Merkin with deeply personal questions about the content in the essay collection, "The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontës, and the Importance of Handbags."
The two writers touched on the highs and lows of both Ms. Merkin's life and American culture over a four-course dinner that spotlighted tilefish and finished with New York cheesecake.
One of Ms. Merkin's favorite essays is "Against Lip Gloss or, New Notes on Camp."
In it, she "connected lip gloss to Susan Sontag, to camp, to post-camp, to the need of looking receptive all the time and ready for engagement, which I think is what lip gloss signifies," the author said.
Apparently, Ms. Merkin isn't the only one who analyzes lip gloss.
"These two girls on the subway were ardently discussing lip gloss, and I was thinking that lip gloss seems like such a marketing phenomenon. Nobody's lips are always shiny," she said.
The book boasts 46 essays dating back to 1980. Ms. Merkin took questions from guests about depression, loneliness, feminism and a recent trip to Israel.
A comedic break came when the discussion reached the essay "When a Bag is Not Just a Bag," which turns designer handbags into a metaphor for a woman's worth.
"How could you explain the Birkin bag?" Ms. Jong asked. "Who would spend $25,000 for a bag if it weren't a symbol for something else?"
Ms. Jong told the crowd that "handbag mania" has affected her daughter, Molly Jong-Fast.
The symbol of the handbag could be summed up as "an assertion of the value of your femininity, I guess," Ms. Jong said. "We've become much more materialistic. We have to prove things with money."
Anna Sabat, one of Ms. Merkin's former writing students from Hunter College, said she has learned from her teacher's method of self-disclosure and utter openness.
"For women especially, we're afraid we'll insult someone, or they'll recognize themselves and it inhibits our writing," Ms. Sabat said. "She's written about all of these subjects that seem as though they'd be very hard for me to write about, but she's freed those up to some extent."
Daphne Merkin has been a contributor to the New York Times Magazine. the New Yorker. the New Republic. and ELLE. among others. She is the author of the novel ENCHANTMENT and a collection of essays, DREAMING OF HITLER.Books
The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontës, and the Importance of Handbags
Katie Roiphe: "Fearless, impolitic, honest, darkly observant, these superb essays tell all of our secrets." Chip McGrath: "Daphne Merkin is one of the smartest and best readers I know—not only of books (about which she writes peerlessly) but of people and their preoccupations. She is fiercely honest, even when she turns her unflinching eye on herself, and has such range and such an uncanny ability to draw connections that her essays leave you enlightened about things you never knew you cared about."
Janet Malcolm: "Daphne Merkin's voice is unmistakable in its wit and audacity and undertone of melancholy. The essay form is a perfect medium for her delicious arias."
Phyllis Rose: "Daphne Merkin puts the mark of her distinctive style—intellectual and literary—on everything she writes about, from Kabbalah to camp. This is the juiciest collection of cultural criticism to come along in quite a while and establishes her as a unique and major essayist."
Diane Keaton: "THE FAME LUNCHES is nothing short of a great read. It's filled with unexpected insights into the Complexity, Sorrow, and Beauty of my favorite subject: Women. Everything Daphne Merkin touches glows in the light of her shining talent."
Woody Allen: "Daphne Merkin's sparkling and unreasonably informed essays are about fame, yes, and lunches, somewhat. Above all, they are strikingly original takes on the human condition."
Erica Jong: "THE FAME LUNCHES is a delicious and delightful feast. What a pleasure to read a writer who can use language with joy and inventiveness. Daphne Merkin has taken the essay form back to its roots in Michel Montaigne, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Samuel Johnson. Her range is vast, her intellect inspiring. Whether you agree with her conclusions or not, watching her mind work is a thing of beauty."
Illustration by Emily Carroll
Daphne Merkin is the kind of writer who takes pleasure in a perfectly chosen epigraph. She has selected two germane ones for her new collection, The Fame Lunches, which gathers together 45 previously published essays from her four-decade career as a literary and culture critic for TheNew Yorker. Elle, and elsewhere. The second quote, from Chekhov, goes: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” And all Merkin’s book is there: the damage, the glisten, the glass that is at once a hard boundary and a transparent promise. Merkin is our scribe of wounded celebrity, fascinated by “platinum pain” and the “mixture of fame and fragility.” She is also unafraid to turn the glass on herself: “I have come to be known for bold, almost reckless self-disclosure … whether the topic happens to be the terrors of pregnancy, the erotics of spanking … or my habituations on various psychiatric wards.” In The Fame Lunches. Merkin looks both out and in, alternating portraits of bruised icons like Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, and Virginia Woolf with memories of her lonely childhood, misgivings about her lapsed Jewishness, anxieties about her divorce.
Katy Waldman is Slate ’s words correspondent.
So she is a “wound-dweller ,” like Leslie Jamison and Roxane Gay. (Today’s best female essayists all seem to be wound-dwellers.) What distinguishes Merkin—aside from inimitability as a stylist—is her intuition that wounds and celebrity are symbiotic. Our culture, she finds, both cultivates and feeds on stars’ vulnerability. We are not after flawless idols (Gwyneth) but alluring messes (Sandra Dee, Courtney Love). When we lunch on their fame, we are consuming their carefully cracked personas in the hopes of ennobling our own faults: “The trick was to get out of being a nobody by harnessing yourself to a somebody who was, deep down inside, a nobody, too,” she says. “The trick was to give status to your own woundedness. ”
But isn’t a handbag sometimes just a handbag, rather than an omnium-gatherum?
“I write,” Merkin writes, largely out of emotional necessity, “largely out of emotional necessity.” She says in her prologue that she pursues “shapely narratives” because “I lead my life in an incurably unstructured fashion, bordering on the chaotic, with the specter of attendant meaninglessness never far off.” She is also “someone who circles her psyche like one of those infinity scarves, knitting anxiety and obsession together in an inextricable loop.” And she entwines herself, too, with her subjects, intervening on behalf of the gorgeously busted actors and writers and musicians because “only I understood the desolation that drove them.” (This is crazy, and, of course, Merkin knows it. The entire book almost functions as a series of diamond-tipped epigraphs, which in their gemlike lunacy encompass an entire, bonkers way of seeing things, as well as a razor-sharp awareness of the bonkers-ness.)
Therefore her essays are over-determined—the products not just of an omnivorous intellect and a deadline but of psychic turmoil. Like Freud (whom she refers back to often, crowning him the “subtle and allusive poet of the unconscious life”), Merkin swathes everything with layers of explanation and import. Our obsession with nice teeth is “a symptom … of what ails our culture in general, an indication of the zero-sum game of treating ourselves as objects in an exhibition.” Our love of overeating “has something to do with the ordeal of visibility… with the desire to disappear … with the burden of consciousness and the wish to tune out, to blur the edges of things.” This is a bag: “the portable manifestation of [a woman’s] sense of self, a detailed and remarkably revealing map of her interior, an omnium-gatherum of myriad aspects of her life.” This is the woman who might carry the bag: “so supple and yet unyielding, so ephemeral and yet sturdy, so large of presence and yet graceful of mien, so French and yet Italian, so elegant and yet artisan-like, so Hermès and yet Beguelin. So everything, in short, and yet insouciant.”
Merkin has exhilarating insights into the men and women she profiles, from Michael Jackson to Cate Blanchett to Henry Roth. I have no idea if her epiphanies are accurate, or products of her story-weaving impulses, or sly meta-commentaries on the constructedness of all personas. Of Monroe and the baseball player Joe DiMaggio, Merkin says he “loved her with the sort of potato love that might have made her strong if she had been able to take it in.” This is intriguing, beautifully put, and outlandishly speculative. (FOR YOUR NOVEL. reads my margin note). For every astute observation—on Diane Keaton: “One minute she’s perversely insisting on her ordinariness; the next she’s gleefully leading with her idiosyncrasies, as if she figured out long ago that the deliberate cultivation of oddness is the key to endearing yourself to a potentially hostile world”—there is a virtuosic piece of analysis that feels more rooted in literature than reporting. Over lunch with Alice Munro, Merkin detects in the author “a watchful inner self … a witty, sometimes brutally observant self, held in check by the need to pass herself off as conventionally and graciously female.” Again: Fascinating. Again: What does it even mean to perceive that about someone while eating Caesar salad? How does Merkin know?
Of course, this is part of the point—that we lasso celebrities into our personal narratives; that every “fact” is motivated, somehow; that there is always another explanation. The stars tend to their auras and we edit them. Merkin applauds how Courtney Love converted her lived suffering (“an atmosphere of real-life squalor”) into “bad-girl atmospherics,” inventing a stage self from the ashes of her abusive upbringing. In a way, Love is ahead of the game, controlling her image so the rest of us can’t get there first. The truly tragic cases are different—Marilyn and Sylvia Plath and Sandra Dee. Their exposed vulnerability stokes our hunger, though for all of Merkin’s explanation I am still unclear on what exactly we hunger for. Intimacy? Vindication? A ripping yarn?
In addition to the stars, Merkin tackles subjects like girdles, pedicures, lip gloss, and the “cerebral pleasure of clothes.” Reading her, I felt, at times, like a shallow brute because I don’t personally find tremendous meaning in a Michael Kors chemise. (I am too dull-witted for the cerebral pleasure of clothes!) I suppose it is a virtue that Merkin’s feisty, brilliantine writing makes much of what seems like little—it certainly means that the essays are adventures, veering in unexpected and profound directions. But isn’t a handbag sometimes just a handbag, rather than an omnium-gatherum? In the Cate Blanchett profile, Merkin describes the actress “putting her finger on the existential mystery that underlies the construction of any screen persona”: “Who knows,” Blanchett asks, “who Julia Roberts really is?” Who cares?
Courtesy of Tina Turnbow
Yet celebrities form the suggestive surface of our culture: Their stories go skin-deep, and beneath that lie our own lives, the meat under the allegory. Merkin is ensorcelled with appearances because, as she says, we live during “the victory of the simulacrum.” “These days,” she continues, “the threat of the artificial has been converted to an enticement: life as a Warhol silk screen.” In a Merkin essay, all the screens and outer selves glitter and splinter, reveal and obscure, demanding constant interpretation. Maybe that’s why reading The Fame Lunches can occasionally feel exhausting. It is stressful, and seems somehow neurotic, to relentlessly plumb the shallows, to always be peering past the beauty product into the soul. Handbags and pop stars can only do so much work! “Our desires,” Merkin quotes Adam Phillips in an essay called “Freud Without Tears,” “are in excess of any object’s capacity to satisfy them.”
The Fame Lunches also includes a wide swatch of Merkin’s literary criticism. These essays are straightforward, satisfying vehicles for her talents: looking, interpreting, dressing each sentence up in diamonds. She can cut to the heart of an author in just a few words, as when she describes the waning of John Updike’s reputation in the ’90s: “He began to seem like a man who always wore a hat to work.” Her meditation on W.B. Sebald immediately, effortlessly captures what the writer is about (“an almost triumphant presentiment of extinction,” a “cumulative rush of coincidences”) and why it’s a problem (he “leaves no room for an etiology of disaster—and therefore no room for the sort of psychological triage that would allow us to pool our limited resources of compassion and pity in accordance with some stark hierarchy of justness”). I could read Merkin on Ann Carson, or the Brontë sisters, or Margaret Drabble forever. She has a way of disappearing behind her ideas and descriptions and then suddenly materializing to reflect on what she’s built. Sometimes she’ll break it open. “Maybe Drabble isn’t quite the expert juggler in her own mind that I have envisioned her as being after all”, she muses, after pages of anecdotes about the author’s no-nonsense self-sufficiency. Human beings are harder to read than texts.
Thanks to the ephemerality of culture in general, several of these essays, written in the ’90s and early aughts, have aged poorly. Some conjure a sense of excess and materialism that was once a lot more diffuse, though it lives on today in specific zones of entertainment (the Kardashians). For Merkin, money is central, the golden stream that changes all it touches, an involved nexus of enticement and shame. Today it remains huge and complicated, but an even bigger obsession is with creativity/spirituality/self-actualization—ideals that require lucre in practice, but in theory exist outside of it. This makes for a hard-to-place dissonance when you read about Merkin’s existential crisis over lunch at a “fancy Upper East Side restaurant,” or her anguish at sizing herself out of Barneys, or her coveting of a friend’s beach house in the Hamptons. The problem isn’t quite that Merkin takes her privilege for granted (she does and she doesn’t), but that the conflict these set pieces are meant to embody—between having means and remaining unfulfilled—feels dated. We no longer expect money to fix everything. (Or, more precisely, that it doesn’t fix everything is not as trenchant a point in a society that now prizes the material-less self.) Likewise, when Merkin opines that popular media rarely acknowledges “that a straight woman’s friendship with a gay man may serve a function beyond light relief,” she is speaking from a bygone epoch of “fag hags” and Will and Grace. not one in which gay characters get their own HBO dramas.
On the other hand, the essays are so smart and delightful that it almost doesn’t matter whether they align with the world as we know it. That we all know it differently, as a chaos of projection-ready surfaces, is part of the point. The first of the two perfectly chosen epigraphs, by the way, comes from Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s . “Certain shades of limelight wreck a girl’s complexion.” That’s true, but certain modes of attention can also cast an unexpected luster on their objects. “In pulling together such a diverse group” of essays, Merkin writes, “I aspired to create something approaching a stylistic imprint—what Flaubert once referred to as ‘an absolute manner of seeing things.’” The way she sees might be almost too good for the things—which is exactly how the best kinds of vision work.
The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontës, and the Importance of Handbags by Daphne Merkin. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.