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What's eating Daphne Merkin? The question has some twisted implications given that Merkin's favorite topic is sex -- specifically, her own libido, and more broadly, what she herself calls "the tired conventions of heterosexuality and its reflexive power plays -- it's Hegelian divisions of dominance and submission."
Merkin, of course, is the woman who caused such a rumpus last year by confessing her desire to be spanked in the pages of the New Yorker. If these collected essays are any indication, her quest for self-abasement didn't end or begin with a check from Tina Brown. In Dreaming of Hitler we read about Merkin's ongoing battle with depression; her "decades of therapy"; her difficult relations with her Orthodox Jewish parents (and especially with her "cruel," "mercurial," "withholding" mother); her yearning for thinness; her polycystic ovaries; her breast-reduction surgery; and what she regards as her "deviant" temptation to swipe trinkets from the shelves whenever she shops on the Upper East Side (which she does quite a lot, by the sound of it).
Indeed, "The Shoplifter's High," her essay on Manhattanite-female pinching trends, shows Merkin at her best and her worst -- her best because she is never less than insightful, intelligent, wryly composed and highly literate when she writes on any subject; her worst because she is apparently incapable of writing about anything without steering the subject back to herself. Merkin isn't the kind of writer who simply brings a strong personality to bear on her material, or who views a particular topic through the lens of her own perceptions. She actually defines the world and all its inhabitants through her own experience, and she takes herself very seriously indeed, whether she's writing about Adolf Hitler or Norman Mailer or raising children or buying dildos. "I stood there and gaped," Merkin recalls, "not knowing where to begin, other than with the conviction slowly forming in my mind that the problem of penetration -- the wish to be filled with something hard and penislike and not-female -- would not go away, even for lesbians."
Alas, Merkin writes about sex with a tightness so controlled it eliminates any trace of eroticism. She's a straight man's dream girl, all objects and ground rules, scenarios and "roles." As a divorced woman, a single parent, a lapsed Jew and a would-be sexual renegade, Merkin is "in the habit of ambling through the world, lonely as a Wordsworthian cloud," as she puts it, "in search of company to pass the hours" when she isn't "staring at a blank piece of paper" or worrying about her tan. Non-Jews would do well not to laugh at her childhood dream that she once talked Hitler out of murdering her people, but gay men have a right to be offended by her discussion of AIDS as "a PC illness." And after reading her essay, "On Not Becoming a Lesbian," lesbians everywhere will be grateful she failed the test. -- Salon