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Pickle Me This

May 5, 2010

House Post 3: Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House by Meghan Daum

Meghan Daum is Joan Didion, if Joan Didion had grown up in New Jersey instead of Sacramento, and was self-deprecating instead of self-effacing. Daum writes with Didion’s rhythm, with her cadences, and she is similarly preoccupied with nostalgia. She is also a bit David Sedaris, if he were Joan Didion. I picked up her essay collection My Misspent Life last year, and bunked off work to read it in a day (true story), and this week I devoured her latest book with just as much relish.

Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House is the story of Daum’s relationship with domiciles, beginning with her childhood home, to too many trips with a futon up long flights of stairs in university, the New York apartment of her dreams, when she became too old for roommates, her famous flight to Lincoln, Nebraska (which was mostly due to a lifelong obsession with Little House on the Prairie). In Nebraska, Daum flirted with the idea of buying a farm, cohabited with her boyfriend, became too fond of screen-door slams, and then ran away to California. Once she was there, living in an apartment at the top of a canyon, she decided to once again buy a farm in Nebraska. This very nearly happened, except it didn’t, and then she came back to Los Angeles and finally bought a house there. The house was not without its quirks. And proved crowded once Daum had the “supreme good fortune” of finding “a good, smart, sane man”, and they decided to opt out of “nohabitation” (a Daum neologism, when a couple lives proper at neither one person’s abode nor the other’s).

I have missed a few cottages and apartments. Daum was epically of no fixed address during her twenties and early-thirties, perpetually read to pull up stakes and move on. Eternally seeking the perfect place to live, she was able to avoid properly committing to anything. Moreover, her relationship to where she lived was tied up with her sense of self; she would have to learn how to be at home, which would require her to learn how to be.

In many ways, Daum’s experience is a hyperbolic version of what happens to everyone– how the places we’ve lived are the stories of who we’ve been. There is much familiar here for anyone who has lived with roommates, who has lived in dodgy apartments,  who has house-sat and been a a stand-in in somebody else’s unfortunate life. Daum’s relationship with buying real-estate in particular will strike a pretty universal chord– realtor relationships, the house that got away, the heartbreak of wanting and not getting, the pressure,  how you start boring friends with real-estate talk, and eventually finding and buying a house (with all its compromises) and the adventure of home-ownership begins.

A book about such first-world problems is the kind some readers will love to hate, citing its solipsism, but Daum is an engaging prose stylist and writes with admirable candour. Her book avoids quarter-life-crisis-y angst by looking back from far-away enough that such angst appears appropriately idiotic, and she has honed a fine sense of the ridiculous. As Joan Didion wrote, we tell ourselves stories in order to live, and (as I wrote) in order to make something else of the messes we’ve made. So it’s a book like this, and it’s laughter, and an ending that is bittersweet.

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