Goodbye To All That Feng Shui
10 May 2003
It's the classic, misguided fantasy of big-city dwellers everywhere: to flee the crowds, the astronomical rents, the impossible traffic, the crime, the take-out dinners in plastic containers and set down roots in some bucolic locale where the meals are home-cooked and life is never anything but Simple and Good. In Meghan Daum's first novel, "The Quality of Life Report," the babe in the woods around whom the story revolves is Lucinda Trout, a 29-year-old graduate of Smith College and self-consciously hip New Yorker who covers the lifestyle beat for "New York Up Early," a local morning show. Lucinda aspires to be a hard-hitting journalist investigating serious issues, but finds herself relegated to reporting on subjects like bridal registry etiquette and "thong underwear: can you learn to live with a permanent wedgie?"
Around the time Lucinda receives word that the rent is going up on her closet-size Upper West Side apartment, she scores the closest thing to a genuine news story she'll ever be assigned: a piece on methamphetamine addiction in the Midwest. "New York Up Early" sends her to Prairie City -- located in "a more or less rectangular shaped state . . . dogged neither by oppressive Pentecostal leanings nor a preponderance of Teva-shod rafting guide types . . . neither in the Bible Belt nor the Rocky Mountains"--where women are reputedly using meth in an effort to lose weight and muster the energy to clean the house. "Basically it's coke for the Payless shoes set," says Faye Figaro, Lucinda's monsterous, "practically illiterate" boss, who "looked like a 50-year-old version of Lara Flynn Boyle" while always claiming to be 37.
In Prairie City, Lucinda is welcomed with open arms by Sue Lugenbeel, a gregarious community activist and lesbian who lives on a farm "like something from a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie." Lucinda is bowled over by the hospitality, the spacious land and, of course, the cheap rent. She soon finds herself packing up her stuff and moving to P.C., as it's known by the locals.
The enterprising Lucinda is able to swing the move without losing her job. "New York Up Early" agrees to her proposal to broadcast a series of segments called "The Quality of Life Report," about her new life in P.C. -- a chance to feed every New Yorker's fantasy about living the good life.
The novel revisits some of the same territory staked out by the author in her terrific collection of essays, "My Misspent Youth" (the best one chronicled the disasterous amount of debt Daum racked up while trying to live the life of the young up-and-coming Manhattanite).
Still, there are layers of social commentary here that take a page straight out of the Tom Wolfe playbook. The New Yorkers and their obsessions are, if a bit familiar, funny nonetheless: Lucinda's friends are devoted to yoga and worry about their feng shui. The Prairie Cityites are all described by their dangly silver earrings, unfashionable batik clothing and ubiquituos Birkenstocks. They're all devoted to left-wing politics and still listen to Joni Mitchell, but deviled eggs and Rice Krispie squares are always on the menu at their frequent political meetings.
No young heterosexual woman's fantasy is complete without a man. The advantage of having relocated to the Midwest is that Lucinda is no longer forced to vie with her friends over "the same handful of architects and Men's Journal editors." Instead, she now aims to find someone resembling Sam Shepard in his role as the kindly veterinarian in the 1987 movie "Baby Boom." That such a person doesn't exist is immaterial.
Then one afternoon Lucinda meets Mason Clay in the parking lot of a deserted wooded park, where she intends to go jogging. "He looked like Brad Pitt might have looked if Brad Pitt had lived during either the Civil War times or the late 1960s. I realize this is an odd mixing of genres .. . He was sexy in a way, in a redneck, woodsy, serial killer sort of way."
And thus begins the ill-fated love affair that anchors the second half of the book, and provides fodder for the most hilarious of Lucinda's "Quality of Life" reports. "New York Up Early" wants to do a tie-in with a segment promoting a book called "The Good Girls Guide to Bad Boys." Mason, who works at a grain elevator and has fathered three children by three different women, isn't bad in the way our culture has defined as sexy and appealing, although for the segment -- as well as for Lucinda's own romantic fantasy -- he needs to be cast as an earthy sex god. The garbled memo that arrives from the idiotic Faye is a scream: "do bad boy sex dog sotry asap. Focus on animal mangetism of him. Get footage of batheing in river."
Social satire in these oversensitive times is the devil to pull off. Poking fun at anyone other than the rich and ridiculous may work for stand-up comedians but is tricky for the novelist. Daum manages the near impossible: to make fun of people without judging them.
In the end the thing that bedeviled Lucinda in New York bedevils her in Prairie City: human beings refuse to behave like characters in a movie. Faye is forever instructing Lucinda not to allow any fat people on camera, to make sure everyone wears earth tones and looks suitably Simple and Good. Lucinda strives in her reports--and in her life--to make the people of Prairie City fit the fantasy, and they resist. They have complicated lives, unfortunate tattoos and piercings, poor eating habits, unruly opinions; in short, things that don't play well on TV. They may not all be Simple and Good, but, as Lucinda discovers, they are able to grab a bite in the food court at the local mall without overanalyzing how that makes them look to the world.
This would be a slight premise for a novel, except in a culture that becomes more media-saturated with each passing decade, where every new generation lives less through unmediated experience and more through images created with the hand of a stylist, surfaces do mean everything. Entire lives are defined by them, as Daum well knows. On the face of it, "The Quality of Life Report" is effervescent and companionable and may well be written off as chick-lit, though it deserves better. Daum's enormous comic gift--and her ability to use it in the service of fundamentally serious issues--is an unexpected delight.