A common criticism of Amy Schumer’s self-written 2015 movie blockbuster, Trainwreck, was that it got off to a good start before running out of steam. If that is true, the opposite can be said of the comic’s debut book (“not a memoir,” she insists).
Schumer is right: The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo is not a memoir but a collection of essays, listicles and vignettes: the latest in a long line of books from extremely smart, talented US comedians: Tina Fey, Chelsea Handler, Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham. Though, of course, if you’re in the market for hilarious books by brilliantly funny women, then Nora Ephron’s work is the gold standard.
It’s easy to see why Schumer’s book is billed as “confessional” – women’s writing often is. It is still the case that when a woman writes or talks candidly, her words are viewed as confessional because of how long women’s voices have been suppressed. But it’s also often the writing women are pushed into – it’s the business model of entire websites. But part of Schumer’s huge success as a comedian – the ratings smash Inside Amy Schumer; hosting MTV awards shows – is how well she skewers double standards. “Confessional” is a very gendered word. Can’t we just call her honest?
The book’s title is a play on Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise. I hate titles like that. But we don’t really get down to it until the last chapter and then it makes beautiful sense. Also, when I saw that the opening chapter was called An Open Letter to My Vagina, I sighed, because: a) who isn’t sick of open letters? and b) we know a lot about Schumer’s vagina and nothing can ever top her description of it in her HBO special as looking like “an old lounge singer’s mouth”.
But, though the first 40 pages of The Girl… read as though an enterprising show runner has picked up some script notes on set and flogged them (there are too many zany asides and “anythiiiinnnnnnnnggggg”s), the rest of this book is resoundingly brilliant.
Where it shines is in the jokes less told and scenes less sketched. The writing on her father’s multiple sclerosis (which was given a subplot in Trainwreck) is both warm and devastating. “I’ve been mourning him while he’s still alive,” Schumer writes at one point of the gregarious, handsome man who struggles to find hope in recovery and who has, on more than one occasion, soiled himself in public. Then there’s this on the last time the two ever went surfing together: “We waited for a good wave. That last wave we would ever ride together. When we saw it rolling in, we made eye contact and nodded to each other like musicians agreeing to play the bridge.”
I read that line three times over it was so good; I had to fish it out of my gut. Some of the prose on her dad’s illness could rival Oliver Sacks or Paul Kalanithi. That’s probably not what you were expecting.
There’s a chapter entitled How I Lost My Virginity. Not a wheeze about broken condoms and cramp, but an account of how Schumer lost her virginity to rape. A section is dedicated to two women who were shot and killed at a screening of her film. At the back of the book, she includes practical steps on how to help in the fight for gun control. This could all come across a bit Chris Martin, but it doesn’t.
But do not worry: there are laughs. Schumer is the kind of comedian who can casually drop bombs, à la Sarah Silverman or Joan Rivers, speak about sex with a Pryor-like candour or be as physically funny as Lucille Ball. Her prose, too, is physical: it jumps and spins. (She would maybe tell you this is as close to playing sports as she gets.) There are offbeat observations. She describes a gym as “just for women – which we all know is code for sub-par”.
This might sound like an odd thing to write about a work by a comedian, but The Girl… would still be a success if it wasn’t funny, because it is so unashamed and human. It makes sense that Schumer selects Walt Whitman and Mark Twain as her favourite authors. (“No,” she recalls a boyfriend saying when she gives the latter as the name of her dream best friend, “it has to be a real person.”)
There are 35 chapters – one for each year of Schumer’s life, though I understand why she talks as though she’s 90. I am 27 and spent three hours last week Googling pension schemes, so I get it. In this world, if you are female and can’t command £5,000 per pre-roll ad for your YouTube makeup tutorials by 18, then it’s over. However, Schumer’s section of the book on her hustle, her decade-plus on the road performing and honing and crafting and sweating and learning how not to give a toss, is not a slog to read. It’s inspiring, in the way that watching a great football game on TV can make you want to sign up for a team. Go seems to be the message of this book. Play, run, try. That’s all you need to have won.
The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo is published by Harper Collins (£20). Click here to buy it for £16.40