Wednesday 23 October 2019

Stefanie Preissner stands as protagonist in millennials' battle of Yes versus No

Memoir: Can I Say No?

Stefanie Preissner

Hachette Ireland, €14.99

Stefanie Preissner 'poster girl for the disenchanted'.
Photo: Tony Gavin
Stefanie Preissner 'poster girl for the disenchanted'. Photo: Tony Gavin
Can I Say No

Hilary A White

"Preissner for the Aras." You heard it here first. That's right, Stefanie Preissner, poster girl for the disenchanted Instagram age and matriarch of millennialdom, has her sights set on Phoenix Park at some point in the distant future.

It might be a while, the 32-year-old fantasises in this new memoir, before the people of Ireland will be asked to vote yes or no on the Munich-born, Mallow native taking the post, but you wouldn't fully bet against her.

Voting yes or no in life is the subject of this second title from the screen- and stage-writer who has crafted a distinguished public persona that has seen her pop-up everywhere from hit TV sitcoms to late-night panel discussions. At the centre of her appeal lies her myriad idiosyncrasies that she lays out in unflinching and often hilarious detail.

Can I Say No? continues the campaign launched by debut Why Can't Everything Just Stay The Same? to make herself the protagonist and, indeed, antagonist of her saga.

Both titles take the form of questions, signalling disillusionment, confusion and self-examination. The difference with Preissner is that this is not so much "self-help" as "myself-help". In typical millennial fashion, her negotiating of the path to adulthood is laced with an underlying hope things will be called off and she can go back to watching re-runs of Friends.

She is, by her own admission, "a nightmare", but at the same time has crafted a set of principles to maximise her productivity with at-times bemusing severity. The dichotomy is intriguing.

In her all-girls school, the rulebook was drilled into them that girls should be "good", "nice", "loyal", "team players", etc. She attributes this to an ensuing policy of saying yes to everyone's request or offer, even those things that she plainly did not want to do. And as she is at pains to point out throughout, there are a great many things she just cannot abide.

She moves on and she grows up. She meets people such as the exotic Spanish exchange student Valeria, a mythical creature who demonstrated that you can wriggle out of things without upsetting anyone by replacing "no" with "instead, could we...". There are also friendships and teenage courtings that end in lessons learned and varying levels of regret.

One of the more poignant (and perhaps unintentional) things about the book is that it is filled with regrets. Things agreed to that veered from inconvenient to harmful. People assuaged who weren't worth it. Hedonisms and bullying campaigns she was pressured into joining, and the constant keeping up with the pack to avoid ridicule.

Everyone is allowed to lick their wounds as they come through young adulthood. For some readers, however, these chapters will come across as self-indulgent and can feel like you're trapped in a therapy session with her.

But with years and life experience come backbone and a greater awareness of both the motives of those who want you to sign unreasonable contracts as well as the types of situations that don't work for you. She finds whimsical pop-culture references to illustrate matters - Sister, Sister, Sabrina, Scream - but also moments of impressive social analysis, whether at family get-togethers, weddings, the workplace or student bar. Vitally, she brings in the MeToo movement, the book's fundamental interest in appeasement, coercion and consent chiming effortlessly with it.

Preissner is very much a product of her generation, and it is to them, from gig-economy freelancers scared to say no to work offers to young starlets pouting anxiously into social media posts, that this book speaks loudest.

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