Monday 19 February 2018

Wild West: candid and untamed

Memoir: Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, Lindy West, Quercus, pbk, 272 pages, €22.50

Powerful: Former Jezebel staff writer Lindy West has an ear for caustic wit.
Powerful: Former Jezebel staff writer Lindy West has an ear for caustic wit.
Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman

Tanya Sweeney is impressed by the latest confessional, conversational memoir from another fast-rising feminist.

Fans of confessional, conversational memoirs are enjoying a genuine embarrassment of riches these days. With the likes of Cheryl Strayed, Nora Ephron, Lena Dunham and Caitlin Moran taking pride of place on the bestsellers lists in recent years, there has arguably been a hasty dash on the part of publishers to cash in on this phenomenon. A wonderful development, in some ways, but what goes up must also come down. This gleaming, rollicking wave of non-fiction reads has resulted in a scrum of sub-par imitators, some of whom are mixing a hefty dash of feminist polemic with hard-lived personal experience; others are regurgitating even harder-won wisdom. There is a maelstrom of women's voices to choose from; some the real deal; others, not so much.

Many of these confessional titles purport to be the literary equivalent of 'a long chat with a best friend'. A suitable seasonal companion, in other words, for the beach or pool.

Lindy West doesn't really do benign, fluffy chumminess. Funny? Yes. Admirably sharp? Certainly. You will most certainly want, as the publishers of these books sometimes attest, to be her friend. But the former Jezebel staff writer has an ear for caustic wit, a nose for delicious emotional intimacy and little fear of saying the unsayable. There's something beautifully candid and untamed about her writing. She does not shy away from charged words like 'rape' or 'fat'. She'd rather do away with the euphemisms; to destigmatise the terms. She is, as they say, not here to make friends.

Yet there's much in this memoir that will resonate with most female readers. West made the precipitous and hostile journey from self-conscious, overweight college nerd to a powerful and influential writer in a happy marriage. She writes that worrying about her weight shrank her life in ways she hated, and it took years to reach a place of genuine self-acceptance.

Some experiences are hers, endured by only a few: in 2013, the writer received a message on Twitter from Paul, her late father. It subsequently transpired that a Twitter troll had created an account using her father's name, and was pelting messages at a metronomic rate, saying that he was "embarrassed" by her. Identifying and confronting the troll in question, West reflected that reading about fat people, particularly fat women, accepting and loving themselves as they were, infuriated him in ways he couldn't articulate at the time. Big and loud, she contends, stokes the ire of the 'manbabies' online. It is, by any yardstick, a powerful passage that takes the breath away.

One gets the impression that Lindy would balk at being described as brave, but there's a genuine, alpine-fresh fearlessness in her writing. Equally impressive is her unflinching ability to tackle body image, rape, abortion, marriage and the vagaries of puberty head on. West's discontent at women's societal position thrums on almost every page, yet even when recounting the ways that the patriarchy have beaten her down, she remains stoical and noble in her retelling. Bloodied, certainly, but in no way bowed.

"When you hit puberty you don't magically blossom into a woman - you're still the same tiny fool you were at puberty-minus-one, only now once a month hot brown blood just glops and glops out of your private area like a broken Slurpee machine." (If this sort of visceral, descriptive saltiness isn't your bag, by the way, feel free to move right along).

As is often vogueish in confessional memoirs, the reader oscillates between feminist clarion call and raw, undiluted grief as West writes about a relationship break-up and the death of her father. Yet her tone is wondrous; never self-pitying, but evocative all the same.

There is comic relief scattered throughout. Even when discussing the nadir of her puberty - having to wear an antiquated sanitary belt and pad because she had run out of other menstrual accoutrements - West is on shriekingly funny form. Much like US comedian Amy Schumer has managed in her Comedy Central Show, she has married biting social commentary with some true howlers. West points out the fat role models available to her during her childhood. One of which is "Baloo in drag" (from The Jungle Book) and the Queen Of Tarts in Alice In Wonderland: "fat, loud, irrational, violent, overbearing, constantly hitting a hedgehog with a flamingo."

West writes about how children are asked routinely about what they want to be when they grow up, with little emphasis on who they are in the here and now ("the fact that any kid wants to be a vet is bananas, by the way. Whoever does veterinary medicine's PR among preschool-aged children should be working in the f***ing White House").

Presumably, fielding dozens of rape and death threats online every day has made West, already an engaging and singular writer, into an entity bordering on the indomitable. She is fast-rising through the ranks of feminist thinkers and writers, occupying the echelon where Laurie Penny, Jessica Valenti and Roxane Gay already sit.

Make no mistake: Lindy West doesn't purport to have all the answers. When pondering how she got from young shrinking violet to ballsy feminist firebrand, she's at a loss to figure out her own formula. "Time, I guess," she writes simply. "Don't trust anyone who promises you a new life… we are all simply trying to get by after all. There are no magic bullets. Real change is slow, hard and imperceptible. It resists deconstruction."

Readers will be truly spoilt for choice this summer with books of this ilk, but this is the title to choose among the pack. There are fewer more suitable companions for this summer. Her political commentary will (and should) infuriate; elsewhere, there are rowdy, ticklish chapters to sweeten the pill of cold, harsh truth-telling.

"Yeah, well, my name is Lindy West and I'm fat and I bleed out of my hole sometimes," she writes. "My body is mine now."

Ultimately, West is a warrior, a survivor… and she writes with a voice mightier than a sword.

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