Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. by Samantha Irby. (Vintage Books)
I feel a little like Samantha Irby tricked me into letting my guard down with We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. The opening essay in this collection is her application for The Bachelorette, and I haven’t laughed this hard while reading in years. Tears rolled down my face as I tried to read sections out loud to my mostly confused wife. She couldn’t even make out the words I was trying to form because I would inevitably fall into a giggle fit. Irby proceeds to write essays about past boyfriends, hard breakups, her demon cat, and growing up poor. There is a tinge of sadness to each essay, but ultimately she has so many well-placed jokes it’s easy to lose sight of the melancholy threaded within. Halfway through the book as Irby’s life comes into focus, the laughter she has elicited seems almost too honest. I continued reading the funny bits out loud to my wife, but I also kept thinking about the quieter moments after I closed the book.
In We Are Never Meeting in Real Life., we learn all about Irby’s life, from childhood growing up to presumably where she currently is. Along with the hilarious essays included, she has a lot of meditation upon her upbringing, her outlook on life, and what it means to grow older and change in the process. In one essay, “Yo, I Need a Job,” she is summarizing the job she held for fourteen years at a veterinary clinic. She sounds jaded in the essay over the amount of work she’s expected to do, but as it moves along we realize she’s using the humor and snarky tone because she’s on the verge of quitting and starting a whole new chapter in her life. She’s moving away from her home city of Chicago and the idea of leaving everything she knows behind is frightening. Through writing, she’s figuring out how she feels about things and the way she’s able to present the finished book makes it feel like she’s telling us in real time. So when she’s surprised by her emotions and perceptions, we’re also surprised. She is able to give us an inside look at her psyche and, because of that, it’s like we’re John Cusack crawling into John Malkovich’s mind. An alternate title could have been: Being Samantha Irby.
I haven’t read a book with this range of emotions in quite a while. When you’re writing about heavy things it isn’t a prerequisite to keep a serious tone, and if you have humor you don’t have to avoid poignancy.
It doesn’t take long to see Irby’s honesty is one of her strong suits as a storyteller. She doesn’t hold anything back and even goes as far as to tell us not to approach her in real life because we’ll be disappointed. She knows her “blog is hilarious, but I’m not that smart in real life! If you run into me in the grocery store, YOU ARE GOING TO BE DISAPPOINTED” because she knows the difference in writing a joke and trying to improvise humor face-to-face with a stranger. She understands what her strengths and weaknesses are and isn’t afraid to let us know. This self-awareness works in her favor because she is able to gauge how moments in her life have affected her. She gives shitting on the side of the road nearly the same weight as when her father punched her in the face. Even, she seems more flippant and matter-of-fact about the physical abuse she had to endure as opposed to the surface level problems she experiences in her present day. She has come to terms with her past; and this is not told to us, but shown in that she expects us to feel more sympathy for her because she moved into a house with “screen time limits” as opposed to both her parents being dead. Her deceased parents is sad, it seems, but her real struggle is how to watch R-rated movies in a house full of children.
I haven’t read a book with this range of emotions in quite a while. When you’re writing about heavy things it isn’t a prerequisite to keep a serious tone, and if you have humor you don’t have to avoid poignancy. Oftentimes when you find a blend of these styles, they have to meet closer in the middle. Don’t be too funny or too serious, otherwise your book will feel uneven. What’s astounding about We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. is Irby blends the two to the extreme. Like I mentioned above, I was crying because I was laughing so hard, but a few pages later it felt like I’d been punched in the chest. I’m impressed and jealous she was able to get all the feels in one book so seamlessly.