NON-FICTION: TRYING TO BE FUNNY

Updated 30 Apr 2017

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Schumer performing in a Comedy Central show | AP
Schumer performing in a Comedy Central show | AP

Amy Schumer is one of the most talked-about comedians of recent years. The 35-year-old shot to massive fame with the release of her film Trainwreck — the publicity blitz surrounding this big-screen venture made it impossible for anyone to avoid the actor. She also released an HBO stand-up special, performed as an opening act for Madonna, and landed a book deal for a reported eight million dollars.

However, the actor hasn’t been able to maintain the momentum since her meteoric rise. Schumer has been over-promoted to the point of audience fatigue, hounded by plagiarism accusations, criticised for some of her more controversial statements, and has put her television show on an extended hiatus amidst falling ratings.

After her jump from newfound fame to overexposure, she published The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, a collection of candid essays about everything from her family to her relationships.


Confessions that appear to have been undertaken for form’s sake


Schumer begins by saying the book — the title of which is a play on Stieg Larsson’s bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — is not an autobiography, acknowledging that she has “a long way to go until [she] is memoir-worthy.” Instead, she describes it as a set of stories from her life as a “daughter, sister, friend, comedian, actor, girlfriend, one-night stand, employee, employer, lover, fighter, hater, pasta eater, and wine drinker.”

As expected, there are anecdotes about dating athletes and a musician (whose identities are not revealed), and listicles about things that make her happy and things that make her “insanely furious,” but she doesn’t shy away from delving into heavier topics either.

Born into a well-to-do family, several twists of fate changed the course of Schumer’s life. Her parents lost their wealth when she was a child, her father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and her mother subsequently had an affair with Schumer’s best friend’s father, which led to her parents’ divorce. She also shares the harrowing experiences of being in a physically and psychologically abusive relationship and being sexually assaulted by a boyfriend. Also discussed is the tragic shooting in a theatre at a showing of Trainwreck which claimed the lives of two young women, an incident that has since led her to advocate for gun safety.

In several chapters Schumer talks about difficult personal and social issues, broaching topics that many wouldn’t be comfortable discussing openly. Readers are likely to be impressed by her boldness and strength, and find her body-positive attitude inspirational. Also, it is obvious that she cares deeply about her sister and brother and her love for them is endearing. Perhaps that is why her words are at their most powerful when she writes about her family.

It is hard to deny, however, that the book constantly gives an impression of being formulaic. Over the last few years, many American comedians — including Tina Fey, Chelsea Handler, Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham — have published collections of confessional essays. Everyone has been jumping on the female memoir — or “femoir”, as it has been dubbed — bandwagon, and this is what Schumer is doing too.

In a note to readers at the very start of the book, Schumer says she has no wisdom or advice to offer, but then she spends much of the book trying to do just that. Even though the empowerment angle and “love yourself” message have become fairly routine at this point, the comedian continues to emulate this inspirational tone in trying to spin every flaw and failure into a positive while asserting self-worth, straining to find wisdom at every turn, and often falling short.

The humour, as you would expect if you’re familiar with Schumer’s work, is generally crude, but her inability to finish a thought without making it about sex gets tiring quickly. The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo’s worst offence, however, is that the book simply isn’t that funny. Of course, humour is subjective and some might find more amusement here than others, but the book just doesn’t deliver the level of mirth you’d expect from a collection written by a comedian. It certainly isn’t devoid of wit — there are several amusing observations buried in the text — but the jokes don’t always work.

Perhaps something is lost in the transition from stage to page; what might have been funny as part of her act just falls flat here. Obviously, if someone is good at stand-up comedy, that doesn’t automatically mean they are also a good writer. Performance and prose are two very different mediums; a style that works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other. In the case of The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, the author’s casual tone seems too conversational and rambling. Instead of coherent and clear essays, the pieces come off as a jumbled mess of thoughts, more akin to overlong, meandering blog posts than book chapters. Schumer jumps from topic to topic in no particular order which gives the book a disorganised feel, and random subjects, such as her stuffed toys and her preferred funeral arrangements, won’t fascinate anyone except her most ardent admirers.

The reviewer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo
By Amy Schumer
Gallery Books, US
ISBN: 978-1501139888
336pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 30th, 2017