If readers who are looking to “Shrill” for new material will be disappointed, it’s still affecting to read West in the aggregate instead of piece by piece. There’s some beautiful, joyful writing here: West defies cliches both by being persistently hilarious and deeply loving. But there is also loss; if anything comes across as truly grating in “Shrill,” it’s the harsh whine of sexism.
Of course, that process didn’t start once West became nationally famous for her writing on Jezebel. “That period — when I was still wholly myself, effortlessly certain, my identity still undistorted by the magnetic fields of culture — was so long ago that it’s beyond readily accessible memory,” she writes wistfully in an early section of “Shrill” on the way heavier women are depicted in pop culture.
West can be acidly funny on the subject: “History is written by the victors, so forgive me if I don’t trust some P90X sea king’s smear campaign against the radical fatty in the next grotto,” she zings King Triton in “The Little Mermaid.” But if humor is an effective defense against pain, it can also minimize the impact of cruelty or carelessness, and one of the strengths of “Shrill” is West’s willingness to drop that armor and make it clear what a barrage of dismissive images, nasty tropes and online harassment have cost her over time.
No place is that sense of loss clearer than in the sections of “Shrill” where West writes about her relationship with comedy. West walks us through her conflicted affection for Howard Stern; the Seattle comedy scene, where she met her husband; and her debates about rape jokes with Jim Norton and Patton Oswalt, which drew national attention. Those debates changed attitudes and helped popularize concepts such as punching up — targeting less-vulnerable people in jokes, rather than taking cheap shots at people who are already marginalized — that have become useful ways to talk about power and art (even if I hesitate to adopt strict rules for what artists can do).
“I can’t watch stand-up now — the thought of it floods me with a heavy, panicked dread,” West acknowledges. “My point about rape jokes may have gotten through, but my identity as a funny person — the most important thing in my life — didn’t survive. Among a certain subset of comedians and their fans, ‘Lindy West’ is still shorthand for ‘humorless [b—-].’ I sometimes envy (and, on my bad days, resent) the funny female writers of my generation who never get explicitly political in their work. They’re allowed to keep their funny cards; by engaging with comedy, by trying to make it better, I lost mine.”
In the same way that West traces the sobering long-term consequences of fighting over big cultural issues in public, she also writes with substance and grace about living in her own body in a way that transcends the sometimes facile cheerleading for body positivity that shows up everywhere, from feminist Tumblrs to the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue.
“The breadth of my shoulders makes me safe. I am unassailable. I intimidate. I am a polar icebreaker. I walk and climb and lift things, I can open your jar, I can absorb blows — literal and metaphorical — meant for other women, smaller women, breakable women, women who need me. My bones feel like iron — heavy, but strong,” West writes. “Maybe you are thin. You hiked that trail and you are fit and beautiful and wanted and I am so proud of you, I am so in awe of your wiry brightness; and I’m miles behind you, my breathing ragged. But you didn’t carry this up the mountain. You only carried yourself. How hard would you breathe if you had to carry me? You couldn’t. But I can.”
There’s a lovely concreteness to these sentences, and to the idea that West has come to love her own body not as another sort of consumable object, but for what she can do with it.
It’s not easy to talk about the work and consequences involved in changing the world; we crave triumphal stories and incidents to get outraged by. The strength of “Shrill,” though, is the way it captures both halves of the equation, the joy of those hard-fought victories and the pain incurred in battle.
“My dad had four wives; my mom was the last. I think about how much faith it must have taken to keep going — to insist, over and over again, ‘No! I really think it’s going to work this time!’ ” West writes lovingly. “It made sense that he was so drawn to magic and escapism, just like me. His life was beautiful and marked with loss; maybe not more than anyone else’s, but when you only expect the best, heartbreak is a constant.”
“Shrill” is an eloquent argument that the heartbreak may be heavy, but it’s still worth it.