Exploring Personal Pain and Identity Politics

By Gregory, Alice | International New York Times, October 14, 2014 | Go to article overview

Exploring Personal Pain and Identity Politics


Gregory, Alice, International New York Times


A look at two new collections of essays: "The Fame Lunches" by Daphne Merkin and "Bad Feminist" by Roxane Gay.

The Fame Lunches. On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontes, and the Importance of Handbags. By Daphne Merkin. 400 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $28.

Bad Feminist. Essays. By Roxane Gay. 320 pages. Harper Perennial. Paper, $15.99.

If there is a cipher to "The Fame Lunches," Daphne Merkin's first essay collection in over 15 years, it is embedded in her profile of the poet Anne Carson, who writes:

A wound gives off its own light

surgeons say.

If all the lamps in the house were turned out

you could dress this wound

by what shines from it.

Ms. Merkin's 46 essays share a similar curiosity about the glittering byproducts of personal pain. The conspicuous suffering that runs through the book belongs to actresses, to novelists, to musicians and to the author herself.

Like Joan Didion, whose most famous essays are impossible to imagine appearing in any contemporary publication, Ms. Merkin often deals in inscrutable genres. She has a particularly keen ability to abridge other people's lives, and some of her best writing appears in what are ostensibly book reviews of biographies.

Ms. Merkin writes from that chic state of mind she calls "cultural egalitarianism." Her celebrity subjects range from the "wholesome and aboveboard" Marilyn Monroe to the novelist Jean Rhys, whom she describes as forever "doomed to be overwhelmed by first impressions." Though Ms. Merkin is susceptible to "the florid jargon of shrinks" and has an oddly archaic desire to spin coherent narratives from psychoanalytic conjecture, her investigations into the inner lives of icons are conducted with genuine and earnest attention.

It can sometimes seem as if the global supply of candor has run dry, all the world's dirty laundry already aired. But in a book brimming with insight ("Children are inherently conservative") and impeccably precise description (Susan Sontag's writing has a "crisp and haughty 'are you with me, you morons' manner"), Ms. Merkin's most striking trait is her fearlessness with regard to her own denial and rationalization, especially on the subjects of weight and finances. If there is anything truly shameful left in this world it is self-deception, and Ms. Merkin deserves laurels for the willingness she shows in interrogating her own.

"Bad Feminist," Roxane Gay's second book this year, makes the claim that we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good when it comes to identity politics. …

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