Sometimes a Bag Is Just a Bag

In the introduction to her new collection of essays, The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontës, and the Importance of Handbags, Daphne Merkin says that she writes, like Virginia Woolf, to “create wholes” out of the brokenness that surrounds her and to find meaning despite the looming “specter of . . . meaninglessness” in her life. But reading through these essays one frequently wonders whether, for all her apparent ironic self-awareness, Merkin’s search for meaning has been quite searching enough.

Although she is best known for her essays, Merkin is also a writer of fiction, and “The Yom Kippur Pedicure,” an essay about lingering at the nail salon one Yom Kippur Eve, starts out by comparing itself to a Sholem Aleichem story:

How can it be, you might ask, that such a travesty came to pass? . . . You might ask, that is, if this were the beginning of an old-fashioned story by, say Sholem Aleichem, one that had never been exposed to those newfangled and profane literary influences that do away with all meaning, much less a divine purpose.

But the piece quickly shifts tones from the literary to the confessional, as Merkin asks: “What on earth was I thinking? Here I had been alerting my daughter to this defining Jewish moment as though it meant something to me and by extension should to her, and now I was keeping her cooling her sneaker-shod heels while I sat in admiring contemplation of my toes.”

Dapne Merkin
Daphne Merkin. (Photo courtesy of Tina Turnbow.)

Of course, there is something grotesque in the juxtaposition of toenails and religious identity, but then Merkin has made a name for herself as a provocateur, most notably with her essay “Unlikely Obsession,” a piece about her spanking fetish that appeared in The New Yorker in 1996, and which, according to the author, “will undoubtedly dog me for the rest of my days.” While the essays in her current collection—culled from 40 years of writing—are less hair-raising, there is an undercurrent of provocation throughout. This is not in itself a problem, great writing often jolts us. But what is the value of shock value that has no aim outside itself? Elsewhere in this collection, Merkin refers to self-doubt as her religion. That this is might a euphemism for narcissistic tendencies seems to escape the author.

In essays on materialism, money, and fashion—recurrent themes in this book—Merkin ascribes meaning to material objects and celebrity icons while avoiding altogether the question of how her own affluence colors her judgment. Instead, she draws sweeping conclusions about society based on her own chic life on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

As its title suggests, “When a Bag Is Not Just a Bag” is an essay about the purported significance of the accessory, which, Merkin humorously suggests, may contain the answer to the great “Freudian question: What do women want? . . . they want bags.” The piece is signature Merkin: funny, smartly written, and utterly self-indulgent. It opens with the author “scurrying along Madison Avenue,” en route to Barneys, “the metropolitan mecca of all that is fabulously new and covetable, to return two bags” priced at close to $1,000 each. Our “mania for bags” (I had no idea we had one) “defines our acquisition-mad cultural moment,” she writes, but she is not making an argument against such madness. Instead, she imbues bags with psychological meaning such that they not only “lead the way as the top fashion signifier,” but serve, too, as 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—the crucial Filofaxed information as well as the frivolous, lipsticky stuff.”

What that means, of course, is that those of us unable, or unwilling, to spend hundreds of dollars on a bag are somehow lacking in the kind of interiority that women who carry Chanel or Fendi possess. A survey of her friends’ bag preferences reveals the terrifying effects of material overabundance: “I would die carrying a tote,” says one. Another, who Merkin describes, somewhat bizarrely, as a “beautiful fawn-like creature” is too afraid to choose between bags “for fear of what it might say about her.” The cringeworthiness of this seems lost on Merkin, who insists that bags “tell us nothing less than where we live, who we are, and where you might metaphorically find us, carrying our portable identities in the pouch that best meets our dreams of self.”

Of the high-end fashion designer Geoffrey Beene, Merkin writes that he “was a man who thought beyond the surface, someone for whom whimsy was a means to a meaningful end.” But what end is that? Merkin suggests that Beene infused his designs with a “layered and self-reflective aesthetic” that allowed her, a self-described bookish woman, to “embrace the unexpectedly cerebral pleasure of clothes.” This collection does include some essays more aligned with cerebral pursuits, among them a book review of Hermione Lee’s 1997 biography of Virginia Woolf, of which a good few paragraphs are devoted to the question of whether, in fact, anything remains to be said of the famed writer. Of particular interest here is Merkin’s mention of Woolf’s “mixed feelings” about what she called “life-writing.” Merkin quotes Lee, who writes that Woolf was plagued by a “perpetual fear of egotistical self-exposure.” Merkin’s own feelings on the subject seem decidedly less mixed—but it would have been interesting to hear more from her on this.

As for self-reflection, “The Yom Kippur Pedicure” aims to be a thoughtful, introspective essay, a kind of investigation into Merkin’s fraught relationship with her Jewishness, which she traces to her upbringing in an affluent modern Orthodox family of German-Jewish extraction (Merkin is the great-great-granddaughter of Samson Raphael Hirsch) that placed a premium on “rules and more rules—as well as the solemn aesthetic context surrounding their observance” and barely spoke of God or the “vicissitudes of belief.” But while Merkin makes a convincing case for the spiritual bankruptcy of her family’s practice of Judaism, she is unable, or unwilling, to transcend it. Thus, instead of seeking out a more fulfilling kind of Jewish practice, or rejecting Jewish affiliation altogether, she attends the same stuffy synagogue her parents belonged to, where the women’s balcony is a kind of catwalk for the “newly Judaicized wives of the synagogue’s multiple tycoons,” who show up once a year “buffed and lacquered,” and clothed in their “designer duds,” for the High Holidays. She wonders why her experience of religious life has failed to clarify, for her, “the essence of Jewishness” and fancies that she might “come upon the enigmatic heart of the matter one evening when the light is fading and everything seems momentarily serene, somewhere on the road between a pedicure and a prayer.” But this seems as unlikely a prospect to Merkin as it does to her reader. One doesn’t arrive at meaning without searching, which Merkin seems singularly disinclined to do, making one wonder what this exercise is really all about.

In her essay on Virginia Woolf, Merkin quotes Lee’s description of the novelist’s reading as a “means of transcending the self.” As for Merkin, she writes “largely out of emotional necessity,” which is, perhaps, an oblique way of describing writing that is driven primarily by a fascination with oneself.


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