Samantha Irby Wow, No Thank You (2020)
I'll begin with the customary whining, specifically that I feel I'm beginning to see too much of this sort of thing, namely collections of wackily confessional autobiographical essays. While I'm aware that wackily confessional autobiographical essays existed before David Sedaris first began tapping away, it feels very much as though the current wave have been surfing along on the same ticket. I regard David Sedaris as unreservedly wonderful - although I generally prefer his readings of his essays to their printed form; and while I enjoy wackily confessional autobiographical essays for the most part, I'm seeing a bit too much of a pattern here, and we've got to the point of the wackily confessional autobiographical essay as an end in itself*.
The books - many of which often began life as a blog - usually have some single knowingly peculiar image on the primary coloured cover, with a self-consciously quirky saying or phrase for a title, and it's all starting to feel a bit obvious. There was Jenny Lawson's Let's Pretend This Never Happened, Samantha Bee's I Know I Am, But What Are You?, and David Thorne's I'll Go Home Then; It's Warm and Has Chairs, and about fifty billion others. My wife rates the Samantha Bee and Jenny Lawson books fairly highly. I tried Let's Pretend This Never Happened but felt my buttons being pushed in an effort to make me laugh, which would have been fine except that seemed to be all that was going on. I bought my wife the David Thorne book as a birthday gift because it seemed kind of funny, but turned out to be a collection of notionally comic emails by some guy who once wrote jokes for David Letterman - money for old rope. In publishing terms, it seems we may have reached a point equivalent to that year during which the field of stand up comedy was suddenly flooded with a million unfunny laddish cunts who'd doubtless gone down a storm in the work canteen and had decided to make a go of it.
Let's Pretend This Never Happened sold so well that Jenny Lawson was able to open up her own book store here in San Antonio, which is where I came across Samantha Irby's Wow, No Thank You. There was a bunny on the cover and a quick flip through brought forth chuckles, so it seemed like it would make a good anniversary present for my wife. She read it and laughed a lot, then insisted I give it a go, so here I am.
My first impressions were good - those being the impressions which inspired me to buy the thing on the grounds of it being something my wife might enjoy, which she did. My second impressions were more subdued, because a random paragraph read in the book store doesn't get chance to outstay its welcome; and despite initial promise, I found myself reading something by someone with whom I seemingly shared only a few points of reference. Samantha Irby is fifteen years younger than I am, black and female, and there's a lot about moisturiser, chick stuff, and the internet - and to the point of influencing Irby's style of writing which is full of net slang and contractions - LMFAO, hashtags, and things which work fine on a webpage but look fucking silly in print. If I'm reading a book, I like to feel some effort has gone into the writing, and that it isn't simply a copy-pasted treasury of - oh, off the top of my head - Simon's most LOLworthy facebook posts. I wasn't quite feeling this with Wow, No Thank You, but the thought was at the back of my head. It was confessional, almost gratuitously so, communicated with a shitload of sarcasm in the form of sentences which didn't quite seem to know when to stop. It was good, or at least I wasn't not enjoying it, but…
I skipped to the end, to an essay about how Meaty, Irby's first book came to be published, which seemed potentially a little too self-aware for its own good, but I wanted to get a handle on where the woman was coming from; and that's when it all clicked. Despite either appearances or my preconceptions, Irby seems to have been as much bewildered by her own success as anyone, and once you realise this, the rest makes a lot more sense. If her focus seems a little arbitrary, it's because she's writing what the fuck she wants to write about, when she wants to write it. There's no calculation going on here, no pandering to an audience, just scatterbursts of honestly righteous testimony seasoned with a wit that could take your eye out.
I can't watch This Is Us because even though the brothers are hot and the dad is a smoke show, in the first couple episodes the fat girl doesn't get to be much more than "fat," and wow, no thank you! Maybe there are fat people sitting around silently weeping about being fat every minute of every day, but that is a redemptive arc thin people like to see on television, and it's just not the fucking truth. And I like physical comedy as much as the next guy, but it's also super gross to watch a fat bitch just bounce off shit all the time? I don't know, dude, sometimes the chair with fixed arms isn't going to work for me, but it's not like every time I sit in a desk, I get up and take the whole thing with me, or I'm sighing wistfully as everyone else at brunch joyfully eats their quiche while I pick at a piece of boiled lettuce. The shit is called Meaty, and sometimes I hate my body not because it's fat, but mostly because I never wake up in the morning to discover it has transformed into a wolf or a shark overnight. When is the last time you watched a show with a fat woman who didn't at some point reference a new diet or some ill-fitting old jeans? Also this idea that fat people only get pity sex from recent parolees or whatever is bullshit; I've never fucked a repulsive loser ever in my life.
While I wouldn't say the book is exactly free-range, it swings around wildly from one page to the next, requiring that the reader acclimate to its rhythm - but is worth the effort. For what it may be worth, I additionally enjoy the fact of Wow, No Thank You being the testimony of a chunky black lesbian from an economically impoverished upbringing who communicates without recourse to any of the usual reductive box ticking so beloved of middle class pronoun wankers; and ultimately it becomes apparent that Irby and I have a lot in common, and that which we don't have in common, I can at least understand - even the moisturiser, sort of.
I began with the suspicion of there being too much of this sort of thing, but on close inspection I realise I was wrong, and that there isn't anything like enough.
*: I'm aware this may seem a little hypocritical given that much of what is said here might just as well be applied to my own self-published An Englishman in Texas, amongst others. My defence is that I generally regard such material as secondary or supplementary in the wider context of my writing, and as such the only buttons I'm bothered about pushing tend to be my own.