Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo - Amy Schumer (2016)

Oeuvre alert: Amy Schumer has no other books, but she is apparently going to follow this up with one called NOTHING (the answer to the question of what is better than pigs in a blanket) and another called Juggling Dicks (which she and Vanessa Bayer were not doing).  But she also said her next book would be called The New Guy Told Me the News While His Fingers Were Inside Me and My Ovaries Were Being Squished so who knows for sure.  I watched Trainwreck a few months ago on HBO Now and I saw one sketch off of "Inside Amy Schumer," which was very funny.  So my exposure to her is somewhat limited, though it seems like she is in the spotlight every day.  Just this morning she comes up in the news for getting "slammed" for a "Beyonce parody." The week before people walked out of her show in Florida because she was ripping on Trump too much (note: it boggles the mind that there is any overlap between hers and Trump's fans).

I do want to say one thing about how she came to prominence, because I think it is unique.  Her popularity came about rather abruptly sometime in 2014.  She had actually been trying to make a name for herself for the previous 7-8 years.  She was nowhere, and then suddenly she was everywhere.  I am most happy for her because she is the type of stand-up comic that I would be: all I would do is make fun of myself.  I learned that lesson sometime in 2000 or 2001.  It is not good to make fun of other people during a stand up act; it is best to make fun of yourself.  I saw too many comedy shows in New York that never seemed to grasp this, and I thought they were stupid.  One thing Schumer does not write about is the practice of making fun of people in the audience.  I'm sure she's done it, but in a way that wasn't mean.

There are a couple things that everyone is going to mention about this book.  First, the footnoted journal entries.  These are some of the funnier chapters in the book, but really, almost every chapter is funny.  These chapters--four of them, at ages 13, 18, 20 and 22--more than anything else, show that young people interested in the arts should keep a journal.  There is no more valuable tool in reconstructing past events.

Second, this is a feminist text.  Feminism is the major theme of the book.  Oftentimes, as it must, it goes dark places.  Fortunately, Schumer does not come off as heavy-handed.  The two most harrowing chapters detail how Schumer lost her virginity via "grape" (gray-area rape) and how she survived (and later briefly re-entered) an abusive relationship.  Both of these chapters still manage to be funny, and Schumer is fairly generous with these two particular exes.  Certainly, she condemns their behavior, but she also seems to understand why they acted that way, and how their underlying problems made them believe that what they were doing was "okay."  As if it needs to be repeated again, the stories in this book are rallying cries to women to claim ownership of their bodies.  But it is also a good book for men to read, to understand how to treat women better.  There is also a story about a really huge cock.

Now perhaps in the really huge cock story, Schumer hits a nerve center.  It's not so much the events of the story (which comes at the end of a chapter detailing some random celebrities and athletes she dated), but the conceit of it.  In a certain sense, a major theme of Schumer's career has been body-shaming.  Few topics loom larger.  I would never say she is "fat" or even "overweight," but rather "average" and just not anorexic, which yes, all models must be, unless they are plus-size models, which need to be identified as such, and that's a problem.  And she does make a poignant observation near the end of the book about how women's bodies have been scrutinized and analyzed in ways that men have never known--but which we may soon:

"The nickname 'Pancakes' (and also sometimes 'Silver Dollars') stuck around long enough that its life span and evolution could have been slowly, carefully chronicled in a Ken Burns-length documentary.  At least that's how it felt.  But really it was just the remainder of the summer.  I was HUMILIATED and didn't think I'd ever live it down.  Of course, by now I've been around a lot of different women and watched a lot of porn, and I know that our body parts come in all shapes and sizes.  (Men's too!  Did you know their body parts also come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but strangely, the media almost never discusses it?) At the time, I was stunned to learn that my silver dollars were not the norm." (312)

So what does this huge cock story have to do with anything?  I don't know, but Schumer spends a fair amount of time writing about her vagina and how bad it smells.  Imagine a man, writing about his own huge cock.  It would come off as bragging; the reader would not like them.  Imagine a man, writing about his own small cock.  It would come off as pathetic; the reader would feel bad for them.  I feel like the conceit itself is trying to tell the reader something.  Like, it's so shocking to read about because it seems so embarrassing.  Not for her, though not many female celebrities have written about such encounters in the past, but for the man.  She later acknowledges that calling the situation "sad" is completely ridiculous, but I feel like, in this story, she is trying to get at something deeper, like, this is the only way you can body-shame men, the only you can give them a taste of the anxieties of womanhood.

The idea of this book is that you need to love yourself.  It's a very positive message and I laughed a lot while I read this book and I definitely will recommend it (would even rate it on equal footing with Bossypants, if not higher) but there are also problems with this book.  First, Schumer brags too much about being rich.  Of course, she tempers this by also describing how poor she had been for many years, before she could even consider herself a "struggling comic," but it feels kind of empty.  Like, she does mention how she got paid $800 for 1 hour of comedy at a college, when she was just starting out, but she doesn't say how much she makes from hosting "SNL," for example.  If you are going to write about money or being rich, you might as well be as transparent about that as you are about everything else in the book.

Which is one of the things I love very much about this book!  The brutal honesty.  Like for example the story about blacking out and waking up to getting head.  This, it seemed, was fine, was not "grape," as in the earlier scene--just a misunderstanding on the guy's part that she was brain-dead when she put him into a sexual situation.  She does not consider herself an alcoholic, and she has not stopped.  She says that she doesn't like to get really drunk anymore, just a bit tipsy, but then admits she blacked out just a few weeks earlier.  So yes, one of the things I like a lot about this book are its messy contradictions.  Nobody is perfect or can live up to a code that is completely stainless.

Second, sometimes the book feels "padded" with lists or, to borrow a criticism from one Amazon reviewer, biographies of stuffed animals.  I actually sort of like the stuffed animal chapter because it's short and it's a nostalgia trip--anyone could write a similar chapter if they remember those things they held dear as a child.  Really, there is a ton of nostalgia in this book, and one of Schumer's descriptions of her own personal appearance cracked me up:

"Here's to the old man who was still living in my apartment on the day I moved in.  My roommate and I had to pack all of his clothing and box up his huge collection of vintage nudie magazines.  One of them featured a girl wearing a varsity sweater, and she looked so much like me.  The magazine was called Babyface.  I was flattered there was a market for girls like me, who resemble that eighties doll Kid Sister or one of the Garbage Pail Kids." (246)

Finally, there is the writing itself, which is not always very even.  Sometimes, she actually writes quite beautifully.  That almost sounds like a joke but I'm serious.  There are some truly beautiful, sad and funny moments, all at once, in this book:

"We both went through security, shoes on--the good 'ol days--and started walking down the long hall to my gate.  That particular terminal was under heavy construction at the time, so we had to be careful where we walked.  We still had a ways to go when my dad took a sharp right turn and beelined it to the side of the hall.  I stopped walking and turned to see what he was doing.  He shot me a pained look, pulled his pants down, and peed shit out of his ass for about thirty seconds.  Thirty seconds is an eternity, by the way, when you're watching your dad volcanically erupt from his behind.  Think about it now.  One Mississippi.  That's just one.
People quickly walked past, horrified.  One woman shielded her child's eyes.  They stared.  I yelled at one chick passing by, 'WHAT?! Keep it moving!'
After he had finished, my dad stood up straight and said, 'Aim, do you have any shorts in your bag?'
I opened my suitcase and grabbed a pair of lacrosse shorts.  I handed them over, thinking, Damn, those were my favorite.  He threw his pants in the trash and put the shorts on.  I went in for a top-body hug good-bye.  I didn't cry, I didn't laugh, I just smiled and said, 'I love you, Dad.  I won't tell Mom.'
I started to walk away from the whole scene when I heard, 'I said I'd walk you to the gate!'
I turned around to see if he was joking; he was not.  To the gate we walked.  I was mouth breathing and shooting dirty looks at anyone who dared to stare at him.  Once we got to the very last gate in the goddamn terminal, at the end of a very long hall, he kissed me goodbye and left." (54-55)

Other times, she seems to just kind of free-associate with her writing and it meanders.  Sometimes it's really funny too, though, so I can't even call this a complete criticism.

Really, the overwhelming point I wanted to make about this book, is that it is critic-proof, sort of like Schumer's brand of comedy.  You cannot hate this book and you cannot hate this woman.  To do so would put you in the same boat as all the internet trolls that comment on any story about her and call her fat or ugly or unfunny.  Honestly, I don't even think she's that funny in this book.  I thought the first 30 minutes of Trainwreck were hilarious but this book is nearly as educational as it is funny.  There is no more educational chapter than "How to Become a Stand-up Comedian." This is probably the most "epic" chapter in the collection and reveals a handful of truths that one could expect to encounter in trying to start a career in that field.

To sum it up, it is likely this book will make you laugh and provide a modest dose of entertainment.  I'm not sure I would tell you to buy it, but it is definitely worth reading if you're looking for something light, or trying to figure out what to do with your life.  It was worthwhile for me, at least.

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