Quietly Hostile by Samantha Irby; Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; 304 pgs.; $15.30
In Samantha Irby’s newest essay collection, Quietly Hostile, details her life with the candid truths and deadpan humor that her fans have come to expect. Irby’s signature sardonic voice works to expertly fuse emotional depth with self-deprecating humor as she moves between subjects like diarrhea and Dave Matthews, to more emotionally electric moments that lead to thoughtful self-reflection.
The first essay of the collection, “I Like It!” finds Irby tired of the internal battle between her everyday joys and societal expectations. She, begins to respond to criticism with a resounding, “I like it!” When she’s side-eyed for mainlining Diet Coke or when she obsesses over movies others might think are a waste of time, she just says, “I like it!” and moves on. This opening essay feels like a reminder to herself to do as she pleases with unabashed pride. It also sets a reflective tone for readers, who may find it motivating to exclaim, “I like it!” when they need a similar reminder.
With each essay, Irby’s confidence and commitment grows, and by the time readers get into the thick of the collection her thoughtful self-awareness is palpable, though oftentimes shrouded in cringy humor. In “Shit Happens,” Irby responds to questions that no one asked, but everyone has considered, or at least Irby has. The whole essay is structured as a Q&A with queries like, “Is it rude to squat over a toilet so my precious butt cheeks don’t have to make contact with the seat?” The answer is yes, of course it’s rude. The advice Irby dispenses is humorous and poignant. It’s a testament to the care she puts into each essay and the trust she has in her readers. Straddling the line between cringe and thoughtful reflection is a comfortable place for Irby, though perhaps not for readers who are unaccustomed to the horrors of plunging a clogged toilet at a Trader Joe’s.
In the essay, “My Firstborn Dog,” Irby explores her reluctance to have biological children, a decision she’s made because of her own terrible childhood, a laundry list of health problems, and her overall personality, which she describes as “quietly hostile.” “My Firstborn Dog,” is the kind of essay where we see Irby emotionally dialed in. She uses her “very dumb” and “very naughty,” SPCA rescue, Abe, to explore the larger questions of parenting. Irby is honest and funny, but more importantly, she’s capable of pulling her readers into a moment of true self-discovery, admitting, “I don’t know how to teach a child not to seethe, and instead to develop a healthy coping and communication style, because I do not know how to do that for myself.”
Irby might believe she’s inept in coping, but her essays show something different. Sustaining the emotional resonance for readers is her vulnerable albeit unflattering dive into chronic illness. Readers of Irby know all too well, and possibly too much, about her Crohn’s Disease, depression (the book is dedicated to Zoloft) and various joint problems. There is much to admire about her open, sometimes tragic look at chronic illness, because she presents as a person who has learned to cope and thrive, even if she refuses to admit it. Her candid approach takes the burden off the reader who might feel guilty for laughing at these embarrassing moments, particularly when they intersect with chronic illness like in the essay, “Body Horror!” where Irby chronicles her recent loss of bladder control alongside an ex-lover’s desire to be urinated on during sex.
Speaking of sex, readers should expect a healthy dose of it in Quietly Hostile. In the essay, “Two Old Nuns Having Amzing [Sic] Lesbian Sex,” Irby shares her favorite search terms for masturbating which include, “Granny,” “Nun,” and “Mature ladies,” among others. These terms enlightened her to the essay’s title film, which has become one of her favorite adult movies starring well, two old nuns having amazing lesbian sex. While adult movies or lesbian nuns may not be for every reader, the straightforward way in which Irby dissects the movie, scene-by-scene for a full eight pages, invites readers to a broader discussion of pornography and masturbation, while releasing these topics of certain societal stigmas.
In the next essay, “Superfan!!!!!!!” Irby spends thirty pages rewriting her favorite Sex and the City episodes. While this essay isn’t (all) sexual in nature, it did go on for a bit too long, and unless you are a Sex and the City Superfan!!!!!!! it might feel like a one-off, though Irby does write for the show’s reboot, and chronicles it, among other television shows.
It’s true that in the first half of the collection, Irby goes on tangents that seemingly detract from the emotional depth of the work, generally over pop culture topics, but in the second half she expertly delves into unexpected crises and generational trauma more often than not. Essays like, “What if I Died Like Elvis,” serve to charge the emotion while still finding ways to make the reader laugh. In this essay, Irby, alone in her bathroom, battles a bottle of nail polish remover that ultimately makes her so sick, she has to be taken to the emergency room. While gasping from anaphylactic shock, she refuses to let her wife, Kirsten, drive her to the ER in Kirsten’s Honda Fit. Irby writes, “Leaning against the grab bar on the deck I mustered whatever strength I had left in my body to choke out, ‘No! (wheeze) No, no! (cough) Please (gasp) my car!’ Imagine me, breathing my very last earthly breath and pulling up to the morgue in a fucking canary-yellow Honda Fit??? You can’t!” Canary-yellow Honda Fits aside, readers know they can trust Irby to guide them through episodes of trauma with a hyperfocus on the absurdity and humor that often makes tough moments manageable, even if they involve a toilet.
Each of the seventeen essays in the collection is complicated, funny, tragic, and honest in its own way. Whether readers find themselves driving with Samantha Irby down a deserted highway at the height of the Covid pandemic or learning how to look cool in front of teenagers, they can trust they are in good hands. Hands that give permission to examine their own embarrassments, tragedies, and desires in a safe and shame-free space, with a reminder to laugh sometimes, because everyone figures out how to cope, one way or another.