In the vast, shimmering firmament of American female essayists, each one arrives more fierce and fearless than the last. There’s Lindy West, nuanced and affecting. Jessica Valenti: unapologetically feminist and unflinching. Roxane Gay: powerfully honest and poetic. Rebecca Solnit: wry and enlightening. And elsewhere, a swelling tsunami of comics, comedy writers and actors all putting pen to paper to deliver a body of personal work that runs from the uproarious to the solipsistic: Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, Rachel Dratch, Julie Klausener, Abbi Jacobson, Allie Brosh, Jessi Klein, Busy Philipps. Brimful of humour, polemic, anger and energy; it’s safe to assume that the personal essay collection is in spectacularly rude health, at least in the US (closer to home, Emilie Pine, Bryony Gordon and Dolly Alderton are catching the wave with elan).
And then there's Samantha Irby, writer of the bitches gotta eat blog and an explosive 2018 debut of essays, Meaty. In many ways, Irby is pitched squarely between many of the aforesaid writers, flitting deftly from admirable candour and unvarnished confessionalism through to salty humour and frothy ramblings. If an assured and authentic conversationalist with a healthy disregard for TMI (too much information) is your speed, you're very much in luck.
Her second collection of essays, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, sees Irby set her stall out with a clever cap-doff to low culture, or her "guilty pleasure jam". In My Bachelorette Application, Irby introduces herself by way of the questions on the reality show's contestant application form ("Q: Please describe your ideal mate in terms of physical attraction. A: Not a real thing. If at 36 years old, I'm sitting here talking about chiselled abs and perfect teeth, then I am undeserving of romantic love", or "Are you genuinely looking to get married, and why? A: Honestly, I don't know homie. You know, what I really need is someone who remembers to rotate this meaty pre-corpse toward the sun every couple of days and tries to get me to stop spending my money like a goddamn NBA lottery pick.").
From there, the essay titles run in much the same breezy, low-calorie vein: Do You Guys Pay Your F***ing Bills Or What?, You Don't Have To Be Grateful For Sex, Yo, I Need A Job, I'm In Love & It's Boring.
As would befit the tradition of this new cluster of female writers, the random, ticklish idiosyncrasies come thick and fast. “Easter has the best candy, so of course it was my favorite. To this day, I weep like a child when those purple bags of Cadbury Mini Eggs show up in the Walgreens seasonal aisle at the first dawn of spring,” Irby observes.
And yet Irby manages to take this scaffolding of zesty, zeitgeisty humour and builds some real meat on to her essays. There are moments of weighty introspection on being a woman of colour; experiencing grief and mental health issues; dating; chronic illness; the euthanising of beloved pet cats; falling in love with the woman who eventually becomes her wife (while largely identifying in the past as heterosexual). There are occasional moments of pain and gravitas and they’re made all the more significant amid the unending cascade of lols.
There’s a casually witty quality to Irby’s delivery, yet delivering a collection that appears this effortless takes a certain amount of skill. And there are the occasional, joyous moments of shock, for Irby is nothing if not utterly uncompromising. It is one of the greatest strengths of many of these American essayists: an ability to turn the murkiest, muckiest parts of one’s life into spun gold, with nary a thought spared for “is this too much?”.
And Irby in particular embraces the raunch. As she finds her sea legs when it comes to lesbian sex, Irby appears somewhat awed by a whole new set of physical machinations (to put her descriptions of sex with her female lover here would deny any prospective reader one of the most brilliant and unexpected belly laughs of the whole book).
Irby's inimitable worldview gives We Are Never Meeting In Real Life its heft, but there's no doubting that Irby has also buffed her storytelling and comedic skills up to a high shine. It's not a book for those who prefer their writing with a side slice of stirring, poetic lyricism. Nor is it for a reader who bemoans that female writers and comedians are becoming increasingly "unladylike". Anyone else happy to jump through those hurdles will find a deeply satisfying read on the other side.