Four years ago, Gen X journalist and essayist Meghan Daum surprised just about everyone by abandoning New York for the "less literary pastures" of Lincoln, Nebraska. Lucinda Trout, winsome heroine of Daum's sparkling, comic first novel, The Quality of Life Report, surprises her friends and employer by abandoning New York for a place in the heartland called Prairie City. Daum first arrived in Nebraska to report on methamphetamine labs in the Midwest. Trout arrives in Prairie City on a similar assignment for an over-the-top TV show called New York Up Early, where she is the lifestyle reporter. You begin to wonder: Is Lucinda Trout just Meghan Daum in hoop earrings and a new kind of attitude?
"I take it as a compliment that people think that the book is autobiographical, because that's the job of a first-person narrator, to make you believe it's real," Daum says during an early-morning phone call to Los Angeles. Daum is in L.A. working on a film adaptation of the novel. She is cheerful and unguarded, despite the hour. She flew in from New York the previous day, and in another day or two she'll drive back to Nebraska, where she's made an offer on a farmhouse. "All writers take things from their lives and use them in various ways," she continues. "The aspects of The Quality of Life Report that are autobiographical are the things Lucinda thinks about, her ideas, her theories."
Meghan Daum, however, is neither as naïve nor as theatrical as Lucinda Trout. In fact, Daum is a good bit more reticent about her own recent literary successes than Lucinda Trout would likely be. "When I was growing up," Daum says, "my family somehow instilled the notion that you never talked about anything potentially good until it had already happened. It came not out of superstition but perhaps out of pride or modesty or maybe just the tightly wound neuroses of German ancestry. Of course, you can take it too far. When I sold this novel, I was so stunned that for three days I was afraid to tell anyone because I was afraid I might have hallucinated the good news."
Daum also believes she's not as "malleable" as her protagonist. "I'm more set in my ways, which I guess is both a good thing and a bad thing." In other words, Daum is not likely to find herself in quite the predicaments—usually comic predicaments—that Lucinda finds herself in.
Fed up with the spiraling rent on her tiny New York apartment, and thinking that "for the first time like it might be possible to become a good person"—and that it might also be possible to find a place next door to "a veterinarian who looked like Sam Shepherd, a younger Sam Shepherd"—Lucinda proposes to her Up Early producers that they send her to Prairie City to do a year-long series, The Quality of Life Report, that will allow New Yorkers "to live out the fantasy of escaping New York . . . without having to actually do it themselves."
With this as the set-up, Daum writes an often brilliant comedy of overturned expectations. She takes a broad and satisfying swipe at lifestyle entertainment shows and, more pointedly, explores and pokes fun at the stereotypes New Yorkers and Midwesterners hold about one another. When, for example, Up Early producers learn that Lucinda has rented a farmhouse outside Prairie City, they ask her to host a barn dance as part of their Party Week series. Lucinda's Prairie City friends gamely try to accommodate her despite the fact that they're NPR listeners and have never square-danced in their lives. And Lucinda's Sam Shepherd look-alike love interest? He's a 40-year-old artist, grain-silo worker and father of three, who turns out to be a good deal more complicated than Lucinda had ever imagined.
"Everyone has a mythology about themselves," Daum says. "Lucinda clearly has a mythology about what she wants to become. I wanted to show that no matter where you are and no matter how you've been brought up, there's always a gulf between what kind of trappings you want your life to have and what life really is. Lucinda wants to grow up and lead an authentic life. But what she thinks is authentic is actually the opposite of authentic."
Daum is a wonderful observer of human behavior and a compelling prose stylist. As readers of My Misspent Youth, her critically acclaimed 2001 collection of personal essays, know, Daum can also be a provocative theorist about issues large and small. In The Quality of Life Report, her most arresting theory of life is what she calls the "wide margin of error."
"People in big cities are so cautious about doing the wrong thing because the stakes are very, very high," Daum explains. "So they weigh everything very, very carefully: Whether or not they're going to move, whether or not they're going to marry this person, whether or not they're going to have a child. As a result, a sort of paralysis sets in. In a place like Prairie City, in large part because of the geographical space, the stakes are lower. I don't mean that in a pejorative way. It's like you have room to make mistakes. People will take risks in a way that they don't feel free to in the city. If you want to have a child, you don't have to think about private school tuition. Or a house that's going to cost you $600,000. The result is that people actually have the freedom to take chances and to make mistakes. And that really gives them a richer life."
Daum has apparently found that richer life, and her own wide margin of error, in Nebraska. "It is easier to write in Nebraska than in New York," she says. "Just the physical space around me is liberating. Certainly I did a lot of writing in New York, but I was able to write a first novel in Nebraska. And that was not by accident."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.