Samantha Irby laughs through illness, challenges in 'Meaty: Essays'

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Samantha Irby's collection of essays, "Meaty," should not be funny. Ms. Irby suffers from a terrible inflammatory bowel disease. Her father was a violent alcoholic. Ms. Irby cared for her invalid mother through much of her childhood. She's been homeless. She's spent a great deal of time in hospitals. On top of all that, she's single and dating, which, as every modern girl knows, means Spanx and the Internetz, that unholiest of combinations.

By Samantha Irby.
Curbside Splendor Publishing ($15.95).

But Ms. Irby is no victim, choosing instead to laugh all the way to the boxed wine. Indeed, her popular blog, "Bitches Gotta Eat," has been a safe haven for readers tired of a world full of "life hacks," the word "authentic," and people admonishing us to "be present in the moment."

Ms. Irby's frenetic, over-the-top style of writing -- full of swearing, all caps, and invented-but-perfect vocabulary -- details a world that's less about savoring life's delights and more about laughing despite life's indignities.

To set the tone, "Meaty" begins with an early essay focusing on what Ms. Irby is not -- about all the ways she fails at being the self-helped and balanced 30-something woman that Oprah expects us to be. Her book opens:

"Today, 2/13/10 is my birthday. I am excited because I am 30 years old and I don't have a man in my life. I haven't had any children. I haven't finished college. ... I have a broken foot that won't heal. I'm not that smart. I have squamous metaplasia in my ileum. I can't see [expletive]. The radiator in my bathroom is broken but I haven't called my landlord because I need to take the garbage out first (and pick up all of the dirty panties piled next to the toilet). I still don't know how to work my [expletive] phone."

Many of the essays continue in this vein, detailing the things Ms. Irby believes she can't do. They are things she feels she should be able to do; really the things we are all told we should be able to do, as modern, capable women. And yet she's not very good at finding a mate (either male or female; "I'll take love in whatever package it comes," she said in a recent interview), at being beautiful, or at accumulating expensive stuff. She's not even very good at being healthy, what with her Crohn's disease.

Again, none of this should be funny. Dating, for example, is no laughing matter: it's a ridiculous circus, staffed by aggressive, possibly drunk clowns. Society really does encourage women to judge themselves against impossible beauty standards. And Crohn's? Sounds horrible.

But despite both the specificity and the genuinely tragic nature of so much of Ms. Irby's experience, she pulls off a work of transcendent universality and joy. Her secret? She transmutes her earned outrage into absolutely outrageous humor.

On Crohn's, she writes, "Don't be weird if I almost [defecate] in your car. It will happen." On growing up poor and black in a rich, white suburb: "The stay-home mom who also has a nanny? The shorts in the middle of December?! I don't get it, but I'm grateful for you guys, I really am. Without white people, I wouldn't know what the [expletive] a scone is."

On fad diets such as the Baby Food Diet: "I want to see you bitches walking around with jars of turkey dinner or mango banana peas clinking around inside your expensive handbags. I want to see you on park benches in the middle of the day daintily eating pureed carrots and beets from those teeny little spoons because nothing else will fit into those teeny little jars. I would die happy. And until Gerber makes carne asada tacos in portable, baby-proof packaging, Imma leave this one right here."

On relationships: "I'm a downright terrible sharer, and I can't guarantee that I won't write my name on something in the refrigerator I don't want you to eat."

Not even Ms. Irby can make everything in her life funny, however, and her experiences with her father's abuse and her mother's disabling MS, compounded by a car accident, are particularly harrowing. The strength of her writing shines through in these essays, the sudden austerity of style casting a harsh, unblinking gaze compared to the winking audacity of her humor.

Ms. Irby has lived through a lot, and her goal isn't to convince us she's one of the shiny happy people. She's all too present: on her toilet, with her janky intestinal plumbing and her ragged interior scars. And yet she never folds herself into either of the beloved American narratives of Wallowing Victim or Cheerful Survivor. She's somewhere in the middle, acknowledging the depth of her pain even as she laughs at herself, shaking her head at fate while making it all very funny for her audience.

I chortled with her through every page, even as she delicately tipped my perceptions about so many things. Not bad for a lady who -- like so many ladies do, deep in our heart of hearts and despite ourselves -- defines herself by what she isn't and what she can't.


Nicole Peeler writes urban fantasy and is an assistant professor of English at Seton Hill University.

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