On her way through my apartment where I’d recently hosted the author Daphne Merkin for her interviews, she stopped to admire a couple of my daughter’s old dolls perched on a cabinet in the dining room. “I like dolls,” she said. I nodded since the subject comes up in her new book, The Fame Lunches, where she recalls how she and her sister used to play a game of orphanage, “disciplining our dolls and eating deconstructed sandwich cookies.” I’d done somewhat the same thing during my own childhood, mysteriously pampering or punishing my “orphan” dolls, alternately feeding them and denying them treats. In thinking back, I realized those make-believe meals that Merkin described were powerfully charged and overlaid with meaning. They established patterns of imagination interlaced with everything from feelings about love to peripheral political events including, for me, the McCarthy hearings and the Eichmann Trial, and for Merkin, the expulsion of her parents from Europe.
From her first book, the novelistic memoir Enchantment, to her belles-lettristic essays, Merkin has chronicled personal history, which is, of course, woven through public history, sometimes adding, sometimes subtracting details. She was born in 1954 into a large wealthy Orthodox family with an apartment on the East Side and a second home in Long Beach and then Atlantic Beach, N.Y. Her parents, German Jews, were refugees from Hitler’s Germany. Her father, a financier, was a philanthropist who generously spread money around Jewish charities while withholding at home. Her mother was emotionally complex but capricious with affection. She was hospitalized as a young child because of inconsolable crying; depression, about which she has written often, has hounded her ever since. She went to Barnard and later was mentored by Diana Trilling and William Jovanovich. She was married and divorced. She has a daughter. In 1996 she wrote a notorious article for The New Yorker, “Unlikely Obsession,” about her history with spanking. The Merkin family has a public presence in New York City, and her older brother J. Ezra, a hedge-fund manager, has been in the news due to his connections with Bernard Madoff.
The Fame Lunches is a ragbag of essays ranging in subject from a luminous review of W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction to a mocking confession of subversive preparation for Kol Nidre with a badly timed pedicure. As a reader, I know her love of the Brontës, Henry James, Cyril Connolly, Elizabeth Bowen, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Auden, Bergman, Woody Allen, and Scorsese. I share her memories of the Ed Sullivan Show, Gidget, and The Parent Trap. I’ve followed her habit of snacking at 3 a.m., her experiment with wrinkle filler, her braces, her taste in suits (St. John Knits are good for a bar mitzvah), her sorry custom of being late everywhere and to everything, her rebellion against structure and order, her self-identity as an unloved child, and her compulsion to mention the unmentionable. There she is: a hybrid cross of Miss Bossypants and Virginia Woolf.
When she came to my apartment for tea and lunch on two afternoons in October, our talks ranged from her newest assignment, which was reviewing a Swedish mattress, to Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust, then criss-crossed to mothers, fathers, and children, then back again. Because we come from the same generation, our lives have overlapped. It’s not just that we had the same teachers at Barnard but that we were oriented early on by the same set of contradictory forces, and Merkin’s articulation and analysis of that turbulence is astute. The fuss—mainly of Merkin’s own making—about outward appearances, her self-consciousness, is beside the point once her capacious brain takes charge. In conversation as well as in writing, she has command of the English language, mixing “high and low” with aplomb. After I told her I had gotten rid of a large number of poetry books in order to convince my husband to whittle down his library when we were moving to New York, she said, “Sounds very sacrificial.” Merkin’s voice is not quite husky, but rasping. I hadn’t expected the anomaly of her Brooklyn accent though she’s written about it. She says “youmanly,” “toe-ward,” “Hi, you” (to the dog), “right,” and “perfect!” When she talks, the rhythm is a little choppy as she goes, picking up what she’s left out while continuing the train of thought. It can seem like backstitching. When we talked about her essays, I was surprised by the degree to which her thoughts were not just worked out but finalized by her writing; everything’s on the page unless it’s purposefully edited out—she remembered, for instance, deleting a description of her father that read, “He had a crocodile smile.”
The Fame Lunches is loosely organized, but the title essay goes a long way toward identifying Merkin’s habit of thinking—really magical thinking—connecting her interest in Woody Allen and Marilyn Monroe (or Courtney Love or Michael Jackson) to loneliness, reading (especially biographies), and writing. As she explains it in the book, the term “Fame Lunches” comes from a long-ago fantasy, a rejoinder to chronic feelings of unworthiness, of being nobody. In her imaginings she’s lunching with celebrities and offering insightful compassion while confessing her own pain. Daydreams work this way: They’re often elegant (though a little embarrassing when written out) and efficient correctives. And what better solution for low self-esteem than sharing the sadness of “wounded icons,” tethering oneself to larger-than-life suffering?
Merkin is artistically ambitious, and there need be no apology. The task of aggressively reporting on one’s interests and interior life (about going to Sweden to write about the Hästens mattress: “I don’t know why it interests me but it does interest me”) takes a certain amount of bullheadedness and disregard for social cues, which isn’t to everyone’s liking. The striptease she does, laying bare her interior life, carries her to a lot of places many of us are too inhibited to try or too inhibited to talk about. One of the essays in the collection, “Do I Own You Now?”, is a sexual fantasy that brings us pretty close to this un-self-conscious mark. In “In My Head I’m Always Thin,” a man she’s known for years says she’s “unfuckable” at her current weight: I marvel at her thick skin but also wonder why she’d let someone talk to her like that and then repeat it.
Merkin writes a lot about the legacy of being an unloved (or not loved enough) child. Much of her writing spins out—almost always with humor—from that perceived deprivation. In conversation we talked seriously about difficulties with certain men (Jewish princes, I’d venture) who need stroking: “That isn’t my skill with men. My life may have gone another way if it were,” she said. “I’m trying to develop it belatedly.” Depression is fencing that surrounds the pasture where the miscellany of her interests thrive, and it may explain the lightning speed of her tightly written essays, as though she has to get in and out of her reflections quickly before the energy goes out. Meandering in conversation, though, about dolls, orphans, men, and much else, we compared our Jewish families from many angles. She insisted that, hands down, hers was more extreme.
If The Fame Lunches presents a variant on the idea that grace comes through the intercession of saints, angels, or holy men, it also demonstrates what happens when fanciful thinking gets too close to life. Over lunch with the real-life Woody Allen, Merkin finds her enterprise backfiring when his prescription for her woes—shock therapy or as she puts it, “go get yourself hooked up with electrodes, baby”—doesn’t fit her idea of herself at all. Daphne Merkin, she says to herself, isn’t a mental patient but “a writer with a future, a person given to creative descriptions of her own moods,” something I’ll wager that began a long time ago when she took control of those orphan dolls in an exuberant play of imagination.
Frances Brent’s most recent book is The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson.