The author is onstage at her book event at the Mundelein Center for Fine and Performing Arts. She is turned to smile at the crowd with her hands under her chin. Irby wears glasses and red lipstick. Her new book is propped on a book stand on a coffee table on the stage.
Samantha Irby at a recent book event at the Mundelein Center for Fine and Performing Arts. Credit: Joe Nolasco for WBEZ Chicago

Samantha Irby, the midwest’s most lovable misanthrope, triumphantly returns with her fourth collection of personal essays, Quietly Hostile. Spoiler alert: just like the other three, it is both reliably and painfully funny. The prolific author has churned out four hilarious books in ten years in addition to amassing a growing number of television writing credits and maintaining a Judge Mathis synopsis newsletter with a cult following (the Honorable Greg’s team recently confirmed that he reads them—this is major news for the culture). Not a bad yield for a self-described “loser with a blog.” 

Some creators make quippy memes about the mortifying ordeal of being known; Irby has made it her life’s work to write books about the subject. Some alternate titles for this volume (and there were many contenders): “Everything is so embarrassing all of the time,” “Being perceived is excruciating,” “Maybe they should go back to not letting us be outside,” and “Not exactly that kind of lesbian.” Irby has the remarkable ability to make the utterly banal, and even the tragic, uproariously entertaining. The secret to her seemingly limitless supply of humor, revealed during her recent book release tour, is finding the absurdity in any situation. The example she used to illustrate this was a nauseatingly comedic anecdote about her mother’s funeral. Everyone in the audience laughed! We are all monsters! 

Quietly Hostile includes casual pop-culture allusions (e.g. “we live in a society” followed by 14 of Irby’s signature exclamation points) as well as a running tabulation of what is and is not her ministry (the latter includes radishes and waking up early). Her prose is seasoned with sharp and often unexpected self-deprecation, and she remains one of the most deeply relatable voices in contemporary nonfiction. In honor of our list-loving queen, read this book if the following apply to you:

  • You enjoy celebrating your birthday by eating a dip and cheesecake buffet in recognition of your “many years cheating death on this rotten planet.” (Irby is an Aquarius; someone drop the full birth chart, I need it!)
  • You cannot sit down after work if you have evening plans lest you “clinically die until noon the next day.” (She writes: “If I’m gonna go out, I need to have a bra and shoes on by 6:55 at the very latest.” Who among us does not feel this in their aging bones?)  
  • You love Glennon Doyle, Yellowstone, Gone Girl, and other things deemed “guilty pleasures” or “uncool” by the machinations of our joy-killing society.
  • You concur that Red Lobster is fancy and good.
  • You enjoy Chicago Reader shout-outs in literature (p. 149 posits that in another dimension Carrie Bradshaw was the sex and dating columnist in this very publication!)
  • You identify with the term “midwest fancy” (category includes: a bathroom stocked with Aesop, Aveda, and Kiehl’s, a nice mall with good air-conditioning, a chain restaurant with a valet stand, or the Flying J Travel Center in Lake Station, Indiana.)

I hit two stops on the irreverent Irby’s always raucous and unfortunately curtailed book tour (her wife required surgery). The first was presented by Symphony Space in NYC (I attended virtually) and hosted by actor Cynthia Nixon. It featured readings by fellow luminaries Ilana Glazer (Broad City), Aminatou Sow (Call Your Girlfriend), and Jia Tolentino (Trick Mirror, the New Yorker). Irby is a writer on the Sex and the City reboot And Just Like That . . ., in which Nixon stars, so much of the evening was spent discussing the reboot and how exactly Irby became involved. And yes, there was a Che joke (does AJLT discourse exist without one?) There is also a lengthy, farcical chapter on the topic in the book, which I do not have time nor word count to deconstruct here. 

Irby’s other television writing credits include the canceled-too-soon Tuca & Bertie and Work in Progress. She also worked on the Lindy West project Shrill and the episode she wrote, “Pool,” in which she also cameoed, is critically and popularly regarded as the best in the series. Another chapter in the book is Irby’s yet-to-be-picked-up television pilot based on her essay collection Meaty. “Hollywood does not wanna make a fat-bitch-with-diarrhea show,” says Irby. “Well, also my ideas are insane.” This is why we can’t have nice things!

Photo shows a stack of copies of Quietly Hostile on a table. The top copy is upright on a stand. The book cover is orange and has a screaming skunk on it.
Samantha Irby’s fourth essay collection, Quietly Hostile, is both reliably and painfully funny.
Credit: Joe Nolasco for WBEZ Chicago

A highlight of the event was the amount of shit Irby brazenly talked about New York City, in front of a packed NYC crowd, as a horrified Nixon looked on (please remember that she ran for governor of the state in 2018). This anti-NYC, pro-Chicago bit was reprised, to thunderous applause, in her hometown the following evening at the Mundelein Center for Fine and Performing Arts, where Irby was interviewed by Greta Johnsen, host of WBEZ’s Nerdette podcast. Irby, clearly ecstatic to be home (traveling is not her forte), and Johnson discussed overarching themes of the book, including her aforementioned hatred for New York and leaving the house in general, the fact that Irby still considers herself a “big dumb baby,” and how childhood trauma combined with romantic rejection in your 20s is what REALLY makes a person funny and cool. They also debated such age-old questions as, “Is Gone Girl a feminist text?” Argues Irby, “First of all, it’s a woman setting a man up—that’s the most feminist thing you could ever do!” 

One of the greatest things about seeing Irby live is getting insights into stalled or forthcoming projects and essays. Her first revelation: she is working on a novel about “an old virgin trying to get her cherry popped.” “Is it romantic?” queried Johnson, to which Irby responded, “No it’s not romantic. It’s disgusting.” Would. Read. 

Irby also referenced a long-percolating draft of an essay that she hasn’t published yet because “I can’t figure out how to end it . . . but it does have a title.” She proceeds: “It’s called Is It Ever Worth It to Be Friends with a Man. Well, I know that ultimately, the answer is no, but I couldn’t figure out how to land the plane.” As a personal disciple of her tongue-in-cheek misandry (regarding defending her “king,” Dave Matthews: “I do not believe in helping a man, AND YET . . .”), here’s hoping she finds the finish line for this sure-to-be instant classic. 

Irby may write (and speak) about her own life in lurid detail, but is intentional about protecting those closest to her. Her wife (who Irby would have us believe plays the role of long-suffering spouse) and stepkids (Irby eschews this term, preferring “my wife’s kids” or “my in-home teens”; they in turn call Irby “Mom’s wife”) are never the butt of the joke, but they are often the foil for them. 

Biological children? Also not her ministry. She has a similarly tender yet brutally honest approach to writing about grief. When she talks about her complicated relationships with her deceased parents and absentee father, she’ll keep you laughing, but the pang of melancholy when she refers to herself as a generation orphan is palpable. Even in this tough chapter, she lands the plane gracefully and with a smile. Irby simply doesn’t miss.  

Quietly Hostile by Samantha Irby
Vintage, paperback, 304 pp., $17,

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