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 The New 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.
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.”
“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?
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.