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Saturday, July 30, 2016

What is this World, plus Lindy West's 'Shrill'

Two things happened around the same time last week.  Just as I was finishing Lindy West’s mind-blowing collection of essays, “Shrill,” I read about a feminist blogger who decided to hang up her laptop because one of her trolls suggested that her 5-year-old be raped.

I find myself thinking about my parents all the time these days. They died in 1998 (Dad) and 2002 (Mom), and so they just escaped most of the Internet craziness — not to mention the fun-house nightmare of this presidential campaign. Something happens on almost a daily basis now that makes me imagine how dismayed they would be at where our culture has landed. For instance, they would just not know what to think about a world in which men anonymously threatened child rape against a writer.

Yet the world has gotten better in some ways, too, and I count as an examp;e Lindy West’s fierce writing in "Shrill: Notes from a Large Woman" (Hatchette Books). To be clear, my parents wouldn’t understand West, either. But I view her as the answer to some of the unfortunate cultural conventions that thrived during their generation’s heyday.  I needed her writing when I was 15, but alas – she hadn’t yet been born.

West is the fat feminist writer (Jezebel, GQ, The Guardian) who you might know from hearing about on NPR.  A few years ago, one of her trolls opened an email account in the name of West’s dear and recently departed father and started posting hateful messages as if in his voice. Accustomed as she was to ignoring the regular tide of commenter sewage, West was caught up short by this one.  Unable to ignore the bracing cruelty, she wrote about it. Much to her surprise, the troll outed himself to West, and the two eventually had a real conversation.

I’ve listened to this story twice on the radio and read it now as part of “Shrill,” and I can’t explain how deeply it moves me. I find a tiny bit of hope for humanity in the troll’s willingness to apologize and examine his motivations. And the story was one of my first introductions to women writing (very effectively) in defense of their right to be treated humanely regardless of size. This is no small tonic for generations of women taught to apologize for their bodies.

“Shrill” is all of that and more.  West writes about the internal and external battles she faced as a funny woman in the bro culture of stand-up comedy.

She tells us just what it’s like to be a fat person who doesn’t quite fit in the airplane seat. “I have, in my life, been a considerably thinner person and had a fat person sit next to me on a plane,” she writes. “I have also, more recently, been the fat person that makes the other travelers’ faces fall. Being the fat person is worse.”

She unspools events around a kind of heartbreaking cold war she had with her editor, sex columnist Dan Savage, when he decided to jump on the “War Against Obesity” bandwagon. (Spoiler: West still loves Dan, but I loved him a lot less after reading this.)

And oh, by the way, she’s funny enough that on several occasions I  shoved the book under Carlo’s nose to make him read an especially hilarious passage. My favorite West moniker for a woman’s nether regions: “shame canyon.”

It’s a strange thing, reading West’s stories. No one wants to be fat. And those who are don’t want to be fatter. The empathetic reader will find that it hurts to imagine living in West’s shoes, even as she wishes she had a tenth of West’s will to stand strong, day after day, and declare herself worthy.  If I believeed in required reading, “Shrill” would be on this year’s list. Just consider this an enthusiastic nudge.


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