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In 'Quietly Hostile,' Samantha Irby trains a cynical eye inward

Vintage

Samantha Irby is a people person. That is to say, she's a person who is fascinated by people — their obsessions, their hypocrisies, even the things they weirdly reveal about themselves in their anonymous, online product reviews.

Yes, Irby loves to observe her fellow humans. But being human herself, she also trains her most critical — and most cynical — eye inward.

In her fourth collection of essays, Quietly Hostile, the bestselling author and television writer renews her love/hate vows with the human race — as well as her relationship with her own flaws and failings. By her own admission, she's lousy with money, she sounds like an idiot on podcasts, and she is more apt to down a six-pack of Diet Coke on any given day before she touches a glass of water. Luckily for the reader, she never wallows in loathing, self- or otherwise. Instead, she lets us all in on the joke. And what a joke it is.

Take, for example, her two-page vignette called "I Like to Get High at Night and Think About Whales." The title is practically as long as the essay itself. There's a meta-observation about relative size somewhere in that fact but, mostly, the piece is about exactly what it claims to be: Irby sucking down pot gummies and watching whale videos, or as she puts it, "whales doing whale shit." What starts as a standard stoner musing soon morphs into a pensive trip in which Irby yearns for peace and calm — and it somehow blindsides you with its abrupt shift from silly to profound. Elsewhere, the essays titled "Chub Street Diet" and "David [sic] Matthews's Greatest Romantic Hits" draw on her fixation with ostensibly uncool music — corny 1970s yacht rock and corny 1990s singer-songwriters — by structuring narratives around Spotify playlists. Naturally, her running musical commentary says more about her.

Calling Quietly Hostile a collection of essays is a bit limiting. These 17 pieces are more like essays crossed with stand-up bits, and that punchline-driven rhythm serves the book spectacularly well. Her voice is nonchalant yet authoritative, never more so than in "Superfan!!!!!!!," her sprawling breakdown of the original Sex and the City (a show whose 2021 sequel, And Just Like That..., Irby wrote for — and some say helped ruin, even by her own admission). From fanfic to canon, her admittedly controversial contribution to the SITC-verse is offset by her undying devotion to the series — which, to be fair, she serves with a healthy dose of salt.

Irby also never met a list she didn't like. As if both a parody and a celebration of the overabundance of cheap, list-based online content, she sprinkles lists throughout the book with a giddy cataloging of facts, likes, and items that haven't been seen since the heyday of Gen-X lit. In "Shit Happens," it's a litany of bizarro (and, of course, gross) bathroom etiquette tips; in "We Used to Get Dressed Up to Go to Red Lobster," it's an inventory of fast-casual dining chains and how they lodge themselves in our souls as well as our colons. These lists not only serve to break up the text into fun-sized bites, they also offer a peek into the psyche of a compulsive chronicler of culture. It's only after laughing along with her for a few dozen pages that the eerie emptiness of our disposable world creeps in.

"I will bring good shit," Irby promises in "Please Invite Me to Your Party," the essay that closes out Quietly Hostile. It's a tongue-in-cheek — well, ranch-dressing-slathered-carrot-stick-in-cheek — monologue about the ironies, insecurities, and absurdities of domestic socializing. The "good shit" she promises to bring ranges from sarcastically commandeering the Spotify playlist to politely devouring a mediocre party platter.

As always, Irby dexterously plays both sides: the awkward people-pleaser and the snarky cynic. Like a cartoon character in a tennis match against herself, she races back and forth between self-deprecation and scalding humor, never once missing a stroke. People may be shallow, Irby is more than happy to point out, but she's right down there with them — quietly hostile, sure, but also loudly irresistible.

Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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