Monday 27 January 2020

White-hot honesty of a bawdy libertine

Memoir: The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Amy Schumer, HarperCollins, hdbk, 336 pages, €26.49

Like Dunham and Fey before, Schumer lays bare the personal vulnerabilities that many of her fans will likely relate to
Like Dunham and Fey before, Schumer lays bare the personal vulnerabilities that many of her fans will likely relate to
Personal access: Schumer in 2007 featuring in the US reality show Last Comic Standing
The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer

Tanya Sweeney

Amy Schumer's new book joins a teetering pile of memoirs by female comics baring their souls.

It goes without saying that any book that has come to life by dint of a rumoured $10m book deal advance is likely to reap widespread attention. Factor in a comedy star on a dizzying rise, and that the hype will reach weapons-grade levels is a foregone conclusion.

Much has already been said about Amy Schumer's deal-making élan (the devil, it has been largely agreed upon, is in the timing). A sitting, partisan audience has already been salivating for yet more of Schumer's bawdy, salty truth-telling. And it's easy to see where she, as a female comic, has soared where dozens of others have merely survived. In her Comedy Central series Inside Amy Schumer, the comedian has used wacky, often sugary sketches as a Trojan horse to prise open discussions on rape culture, body-shaming, cultural beauty standards, sexual misadventure, drug taking and venereal disease. If it's bothering the Zeitgeist, Schumer covers it… albeit in palatable, highly Tweetable morsels.

Since the dawn of print culture, women writing publicly about their lives has been popular; 18th century memoirists, for instance, were bestsellers in their day. But finally, it's no longer considered a lesser or illegitimate form of writing.

And correspondingly, offering book deals to female comics with an axe to grind or soul to lay bare has become frightfully modish in the US. In a world that pits women against each other on so many levels, a growing number of famous women are choosing to mine their lives, saying, 'we're all in this together, so let's talk honestly and frankly about it'.

As one might expect, there have been hits and misses in the genre. Thus far, Lena Dunham has been the most notable benefactor in this steeplechase, scoring a $3.7m advance for her memoir. Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling and Tig Notaro have enjoyed acclaim with their memoirs, mainly because they have plenty to say and the sleight of hand needed to say it well. Julie Klausner and Rachel Dratch, minor comic celebrities outside of the US, have also been well received. Yet for every Bossypants, there has been a title that's little more than a triumph of commerce over style. Amy Poehler, for instance, made little bones of the fact that she didn't enjoy writing her book Yes Please. Alas, it shows in her complacent prose, which often has the unmistakeable, sour tang of 'have I reached the requisite word count yet?'

And so to Schumer (35), recently anointed with movie-star status. Certainly, hers is a life less ordinary, transitioning as she has from $100-a-night comedy cellar gigs to travelling the world in private jets. The big question, of course, is… well, it is any good?

Schumer's die-hard enthusiast will be thrilled that her particular brand of uncompromising, singular humour is spattered across most of the book. Schumer has doubtless figured out that much of her comedic heft lies in her white-hot honesty around sex, drinking, relationships, sibling rivalry, body image, and thus no stone is left unturned in this batch of essays.

Schumer is the friend in every girl's social circle who takes things too far; the first to dance on a table in a bar, to take home a guy during a blackout on a night out and realise with a jolt that she is having sex with a total stranger. And like the tribal tattoo she had inked on her lower back at the age of 20, she refuses to apologise for any of it.

She's a bawdy, brilliant libertine with a lupine thirst for fun and lust for life; a Joan Rivers or Phyllis Diller for the Insta generation. And yes, there are hearty snorts of laughter throughout The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo. How could there not be, when there are chapter titles like 'Times it's Okay for a Man to Not Make A Woman Come During Sex', 'Rider for the Funeral of Amy Schumer' and 'An Open Letter to My Vagina'?

And yet.

Schumer's book has a disheartening commonality with several of its predecessors. Though she professes from the outset that there is 'no self-help info or advice for you', that this is merely a recollection of life events, there is plenty of polemic here to chew on. In writing about the fiercely personal, Schumer has, whether by accident or design, created something highly universal.

And like Dunham and Fey before her, Schumer lays bare the personal vulnerabilities that many of her fans will likely relate to. There's the emotionally abusive relationship, first assumed to be one full of drama and passion. There's the complexity of her relationship with her mother, who left Amy's father to start an affair with a family friend when she was 13. There is her father's ongoing struggle with multiple sclerosis, a terminal and debilitating condition (he soils himself at an amusement park, and upon realising that her parents are flaws, Schumer admits she 'aged a decade in that moment'). Anyone who has had to watch a beloved parent lose their ability to carry out a full and active life will no doubt relate.

There's the niggling awakening that some men don't care much for humour, but rather looks. There's the confession that she has in the past obsessed to an unhealthy extent over her body. Schumer also touches on rape culture, recalling her own sexual assault in a chapter titled 'How I Lost My Virginity'. In it, she implores people to teach their sons and daughters what really constitutes sexual assault and rape. And her closing chapter, a powerful riff on gun violence, Schumer pays tribute to the two women killed at a Louisiana screening of her movie Trainwreck.

"They are wrong to say that I'm out of my league," she writes in the latter essay. "Because I do know this issue. And you do, too. Anyone who lives and breathes and has an opinion about whether or not first-graders should get shot at school is qualified to speak on this issue."

It has always been Schumer's singular gift that she can riff on the difficult topics with impressive fearlessness on-screen. Inside Amy Schumer passes them off as zany, surreal slices of prime physical comedy, when the subtext is often lurking just below the surface. Case in point: her boy-band satire (and subtle pot shot tossed at the beauty industry), in which a One Direction-type band sing 'Girl You Don't Need Make Up' ("See, it's like I tore up a shag carpet/Assuming there were hardwood floors underneath/But it turned out being just dirty linoleum/These are just metaphors, girl/But they are about your face").

Yet in the medium of personal essay, there is nowhere to hide. There is little in the way of subtext. Schumer is stripped of her most brilliant clever device of all. Still, in The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo, Schumer bolts right out of the gate with the fantastically indelicate, NSFW quips. There is a notable sag in the middle of the book as the saltiness boils off (admittedly, it's hard to be a modern-day Mae West while recalling parental strife or emotional abuse), while much of the highly personal, emotive passages deliver an emotive sucker punch at the book's end.

It's unusual to be granted this much personal access to a movie star, and the fact that Schumer has done away with self-censure means that her book is all the better for it. Like most women in the 21st century, she is multi-faceted, and many of those facets take a beating from extraneous forces every day.

Schumer's power is that she is an honesty bomb who not only revels in the glorious grubbiness of penis jokes, but can also laugh at herself. "Beautiful, ugly, funny, boring, smart or not, my vulnerability is my ultimate strength," she writes in her closing chapter. The same can be said of several of Schumer's comedic foresisters, but her mischievous outlook and gimlet-eyed way with words makes this memoir stand out from the (already teetering) pile.

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