Some Personal News From Samantha Irby
WOW, NO THANK YOU.
By Samantha Irby
Read by the author
The essayist Samantha Irby is an odd kind of jeweler. She takes an idea in her hands, revolves it slowly in her fingertips and then calls your attention to its every minute flaw. Listeners of her new audiobook, “Wow, No Thank You.,” will come to learn and resent any number of things they did not previously know or resent. They will also laugh. No topic is spared her gaze: fermented foods, crown molding, dogs, Chicago parking, the gastrointestinal tract, the distribution of chairs in conference rooms, exfoliation. Anything, it seems, can be worthy of Irby’s lavish scorn. What Keats did for the ode, Irby has done for the complaint.
She has certainly put in the work. Irby is a longtime practitioner of a fine, dying art: the personal blog post. Live since the aughts, her site, bitchesgottaeat.com, has spawned three previous books of essays. These days she’s a little more bashful about her craft, now that most of this genre of writing has fled to even shorter formats like Twitter, or simply withered away with the rest of small-batch digital media. “I am the last person on Earth who still has a blog,” she proclaims in the book’s first essay, “Into the Gross.” Later, after mistakenly assuming that a waiter was star-struck, she will wonder: “How could a person who still has a blog on Al Gore’s internet in the year of our Lord 2020 possibly delude herself into thinking that she is notorious enough to be recognized in a mid-priced sushi chain in Kalamazoo, Mich.?” But Irby — unlike almost every other blogger — understates her relevance. You can see the downstream influence of her mode of acidic, confessional writing all over the internet and even on real-life stages. Writers in this tradition invite audiences right into their unruly lives, so they can rubberneck and relate. Few are successful on both counts. Most attempts to do what Irby does achieve little more than permanently tainting one’s Google results and embarrassing one’s loved ones.
Irby’s success at this tricky art hinges on a few gifts, not the least of which is her willingness to stare down the hardest parts of her life and find rich material. Class is a major engine of Irby’s humor. “My family did not have any money for frivolous things that might make childhood worth surviving (LOL, what is a lunchbox?) and qualified for every government assistance program in existence,” she says. And her years in poverty supply the backdrop for many shrewdly observed punch lines. Now 40, Irby pitches her own TV show to streaming services, doesn’t stay out late, encounters nice focaccia, has white stepchildren; much of this new book explores that adjustment to new circumstances. Relatively new to the trappings of stable middle-class life, she’s already broken down everything stupid about it.
There’s also her unflinching approach to her own health. Irby writes about her chronic illnesses bracingly, comically, with a decent dose of body-horror. “I want to represent for all my people taking 12 pills a day with bald joints and intestines lined with scar tissue,” she says. One chapter chronicles her hysterectomy in vivid detail. Elsewhere she observes that after a long sleep, the fluid in her legs pools backward and causes her to pee, which is less medically sound but also hilarious. Irby is at her best when capturing all the little indignities of tending to a body that doesn’t work as you’d hoped.
Even given good material, execution comes down to voice — every blogger’s power crystal — and this is where she shows total mastery. Irby’s complaints are note-perfect, so precise that they can jolt you into heightened awareness while you are listening to this book. In an unflattering photo, her neck and upper back might look “like a pack of hotdogs.” An ill-timed childhood period is a “a surprise pool party all across the crotch of my Goodwill lavender corduroys.” She sings the praises of her smartphone’s “lightly buttered handfeel.” Midwestern winters “render everyone genderless.” Waiting in line outside the club is standing “huddled with the other pigeons pecking around beneath an underperforming heat lamp.” As for pooping inside the club, that’s not printable in these modest pages, but also well worth your time.
In large part, Irby’s direct, conversational style translates smoothly to the spoken word. Her longest and best sentences often peter out into dry vocal fry, like a duffel being slowly unzipped. She ambles through flashbacks, daydreams, footnotes. (Her style is so naturally digressive that one of the most startling parts of the whole audiobook was hearing her flag an aside with the words “An aside.”) She honks where necessary. Admittedly, some devices and pacing probably work better on paper. One chapter commits completely to a popular joke template: “Sure, sex is fun, but have you ever ____?,” filling the blank over and over with various imaginatively mundane pleasures (“pretentiously carried an NPR tote bag”; “gotten your inbox down to zero”; “taken off your bra at the end of a particularly grueling day”). In audio, this sentence structure is repeated for roughly the length of a network sitcom, and slowly takes on the feel of mantra or catechism. The listener is desensitized to the meanings of the component words. That said, it is impressive as a feat of narratorial endurance.
As a listener relatively new to the audiobook format, I had some kinks to work out. A few minutes in, I already found myself thinking in Irbese: gazing at an everyday task and letting the rhetorical questions stack up to a teetering absurdity. How do I do an audiobook when I have no commute to speak of, or anywhere at all to drive or even walk to? Do I just sit down with a snack and take in every word? Should I recline instead? Do I rewind whenever I miss a stray punch line? What do I do with my eyes while listening to this audio? What about my hands?
After some problem-solving, I landed on an optimal method: Let her narration accompany an activity, like chopping vegetables, stretching your stiff limbs, assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Irby, after all, is a preternaturally gifted nature writer who happens to have focused on the Great Indoors. The sectional and the sweatshirt are her chosen terrain. She thus makes an ideal quarantine companion. Turning on a chapter of this book approximates that currently forbidden pleasure: inviting your tiredest and funniest friend over, and just listening to her riff about whatever ails her, as you sink together into the sofa and slug bad wine.