If there is magic in Trump’s ability to conjure reality out of hot air and spittle, there is an equally powerful magic in the opposite: in speaking the truth, unvarnished, about what we see, what we remember, what has been done to us by people who have assumed power and status as a birthright, rules written just for them. People who are nervous or just trying to wait this moment out until everything settles down. There is power in saying, no, we will not settle down. We will not go back. It’s the lifting of a veil, the opposite of a glamour.
So fine, if you insist. This is a witch hunt. We’re witches, and we’re hunting you.
Essayist and cultural critic Lindy West’s second book changes direction from her first by focusing more on the sociopolitical and cultural, with memoir taking a backseat this time. Still, she proves herself adept at incorporating meaningful memoir elements into broader cultural criticisms and analysis, making for wholly entertaining reading, and ultimately I preferred this collection to Shrill.
West’s strength is in blending the more lowbrow in pop culture with tight analysis of our current sociopolitical landscape. This can be done in a flimsy way that insults your intelligence and never says anything particularly meaningful, or it can weave seemingly disparate strands together brilliantly and West is a writer who consistently achieves the latter. Using amusing examples that are cultural touchpoints, she underscores what these events, personalities, and movements have to say about our current moment.
She writes in these essays about attending a Goop convention and considers what message Gwyneth Paltrow and her followers are preaching (a topic I truly never tire of) (fun fact: it involves leeches on your body now); looks at what silly internet memes like Grumpy Cat say about sensitivity, narrative, and monetization; makes sense of her love for Guy Fieri and his Grocery Games; and affectingly covers hot-button political issues like abortion, gender equality, climate change, and of course, Trump & Co.’s pervasive screaming about a “witch hunt,” which she accurately and effectively repurposes.
Breaking down modern feminism and examining it within cultural context is another of her strong suits, and she looks at feminism in connection to entertainment (rewatching, in increasing horror, the canon of Adam Sandler) and reexamining, through a Ted Bundy-shaped lens, how messed up it is that men are given endless chances and benefits even when they’re murderous maniacs.
Her take on Bundy’s sentencing in a bizarrely adoring judge’s courtroom truly is laugh-out-loud, until you remember what you’re laughing at and then it’s laugh-to-keep-from-crying. “I wonder how many of the women Bundy murdered would have made good lawyers.”
That essay, hilariously titled “Ted Bundy Was Not Charming — Are You High?,” opens like this: “I have to say it was a little annoying, when, in January 2019, everyone on Earth suddenly became Ted Bundy experts because of Netflix’s four-part documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Like, excuse me, some of us have had the Wikipedia page “List of serial killers by number of victims” bookmarked since 2006, and it was only published in 2005. (Also a hot hot read: “List of fatal bear attacks in North America by decade.”)
For me, it’s the global shark attack page, but she knows her audience! Her asides are also brilliant, like ranking her favorite Dateline correspondents or going on a fairly amazing rant against pockets in dresses. I didn’t even realize this was a thing except that the My Favorite Murder hosts are obsessed with it and fans obnoxiously scream about pockets in dresses for like, 30 whole seconds in their live show recordings. But apparently it’s a bigger thing. West isn’t having it: “Brag to me about your pockets when they’re FILLED WITH UNION PAMPHLETS AND FREE TAMPONS FOR THE HOMELESS.” It is so, so funny but also with a lot of heart and sense at the core of it. And her brand of irreverence is so helpful when the actual topics are decidedly grim.
The pockets rant is from “Joan,” where she examines Joan Rivers’ legacy and behavior, and the complications of being a powerful, glass ceiling-busting woman who’s not always good and helpful to other women. It reminded me of one of her pieces from Shrill, where she observes that being a feminist is about realizing how everything you loved hates you. In a lot of ways this feels like a more fiery, no-holds-barred continuation of topics that started germinating there.
They can have something of a paint-by-numbers feel, like here’s the obligatory essay on climate change, here’s the obligatory essay on the gender gap, etc. But when these are the topics dominating the discourse, it’s forgivable. It’s just clear there’s more passion to some than to others, making them feel forced or at least underbaked.
But for the most part these are sarcastic, angry, hilarious, and bitingly smart. 4/5 but still a must-read.
The Witches Are Coming
by Lindy West
published November 5, 2019 by Hachette
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.