Samantha Irby’s “Wow, No Thank You.” Masters the Art of Self-Deprecation

Wow, No Thank You., Samantha Irby’s latest essay collection, is not fucking around when it comes to the trials and tribulations of aging and also merely existing in a human body. Irby is self-deprecating humor’s overlord, mastering the art in her previous books We Are Never Meeting In Real Life and Meaty but also even before that with her candid, hilarious blog “bitches gotta eat” (which is now a very good newsletter, btw).

In many ways, the book reminisces of Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, another essay collection in which the writer is scathingly self-critical without tipping over into self-pitying. Self-deprecating humor is a tough artform to crack, but Ephron and Irby crack the code quite masterfully. Irby’s “Body Negativity” reads as a modern and even more sharp-tongued sequel to Ephron’s “On Maintenance,” all about beauty standards and impossible expectations. By the time Ephron published I Feel Bad About My Neck, she had cemented a clear persona and voice for her work, and Irby has done the same. Existing fans will find a familiar tone and style in the pages here, and for newbies, it’s a head-first dive into Irby’s crisp, hilarious tone and knack for exaggeration.

The opening essay, “Into The Gross,” juxtaposes Irby’s life with that of an Instagram influencer and sets up the thematic throughline for the collection, which yes, delves unflinchingly into grossness. Irby is a fount of self-deprecation, but she is also a formidable scholar in the art of mess, discomfort, and embarrassment. She writes on bodies, aging, and brains in a way that’s wholly relatable and direct. Being a human is hard. Having a body is hard. Sometimes we spend too much fucking money on skincare products because it makes us feel better about ourselves for a split second and then we stop using them after two weeks because keeping a routine is hard and the illusion of glamorous self-care is ephemeral. Throughout the book, Irby explores contradictions and contrasts. The mess of it all isn’t meant to be repulsive; it’s meant to be real.

Several essays here play around with form in simple but effective ways. “Girl’s Gone Mild” provides a painstakingly detailed breakdown of a full day of preparations for going out and the horror-comedy of the night out on the town itself. In “Love and Marriage,” she doles out relationship advice (“I got married, and now I am an expert on marriage and relationships”) to others with blunt honesty. In “A Guide To Simple Home Repairs,” Irby breaks up an essay about the different places she has lived with sections of Google searches like “what do gutters do” and “who washes walls.” Those question interludes contain some of the most laugh-out-loud moments of the book.

“Late 1900s Time Capsule” is a mixtape as essay, Irby crafting a 90s music playlist with specific tracks and commentary that allows her to delve into stories from her adolescence. “Elsewhere” by Sarah McLachlan inspires a story about failing gym class; “Waltzing Back” by the Cranberries becomes a meditation on grunge, clothing, and the self. Also, Irby’s declarative statements about music are exactly the kind of music criticism I appreciate. Facts like: “Fiona [Apple] has exactly zero bad songs” and “Breakdown” by Mariah Carey feat. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony is “easily in the Top Five Breakup Songs of All Time” and, on OK Computer by Radiohead, “every single song is the best song I’ve ever heard.” And the essay acts as a time capsule for the 90s in other ways, too, with references to extremely important cultural moments like the Delia’s catalogue, Sassy magazine, and My So-Called Life throughout. The essay does a lot at once, which is part of Irby’s magic. Her writing is so conversational and funny, but she’s doing much more than just telling jokes.

But she also knows how to craft a joke. In “Lesbian Bed Death,” she employs the very simple joke format of “sure, sex is fun, but have you ever X” over and over. While the repetition ad nauseam starts to drag near the end, there are so many gems in there. But Irby’s determination to drive a joke into the ground is also somewhat admirable. The repetition and exaggeration throughout is part of the book’s comedic voice and style. “Hello, 911?” similarly milks a single joke format for all it’s worth.

Irby also writes candidly on her relationship with her wife and all the ways her life changed when she moved to Michigan to be with her. In “Detachment Parenting,” Irby is as frank about being a step-parent as she is anything else. She also throws a kid-friendly recipe in there, which again evokes Ephron. Irby is playful about the differences between her wife and herself, and just as she doesn’t hold back about the horrors of aging, she so extremely does not glamorize what it means to be in a long-term relationship or to keep a household running that she almost makes it sound like a nightmare.

A mortifying interaction with a new friend, a cat haunting (!!!), and more hysterical treasures are nestled in these pages. For all its sardonic musings, it’s quite a delight to read, and a quick one, too. Irby makes discomfort hilarious.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a writer and critic currently living in Orlando. Her pop culture writing can also be found at The A.V. Club and The Hollywood Reporter, and she wrote the webseries Sidetrack. You can catch her on Twitter and Instagram.

Kayla has written 233 articles for us.

6 Comments

  1. Great review Kayla! I’m so excited to read this! I love her writing. She read some excerpts from it on her Instagram last week and it was very fun to watch. If it’s still there, it’s definitely worth checking out.

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