“ ‘Witch’ is something we call a woman who demands the benefit of the doubt, who speaks the truth, who punctures the con, who kills your joy if your joy is killing,” writes Lindy West. “A witch has power and power in women isn’t likeable, it’s ugly, cartoonish.”
West made waves in 2016 with “Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman,” a memoir-in-essays that became a Hulu comedy series. The book chronicled her struggles against fat-shaming and sexism, while casting a witty eye on society’s hypocrisy and cruelty.
In her latest collection, “The Witches Are Coming,” she covers much of the same territory, but, here, West is more overtly political and angrier. The result is bracing: The essays consider such varied topics as Grumpy Cat, climate change and the on-screen depiction of abortion. But they cohere as a unit, bound by West’s humor, outrage and — in the end — hope.
Hope isn’t in abundant supply these days. As West points out in the book’s introduction, the Obama years may not have been perfect, but many then shared a sense of “palpable momentum, an undeniable feeling that progress had the upper hand.” Then came the 2016 election, when, as she writes, “white American voters and the electoral college and a few Russian troll farms shoved an incompetent, racist con man into the White House.” The biggest danger facing us right now, she suggests, is not Trump the individual but Trumpism — “a dangerous obsession with distraction, obfuscation, and just plain dishonesty. “
West, a Seattle writer who contributes to the New York Times’ opinion section, isn’t satisfied sticking to politics. Too much of her best writing is about pop culture, after all. And the book takes memorable aim at Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness empire, as well as the entire Adam Sandler cinematic oeuvre. Some of these pieces are funny (West calls celebrity chef Guy Fieri “a human flip-flop”), and others mine a more serious vein of observation.
Her essay on the nihilistic cool of “South Park” is particularly astute, if also witty (libertarians are “Republicans with sunglasses,” she observes). The show’s creators identify as Republican and argue that the far right wing and the far left wing are essentially equivalent, and their studied neutrality is “a neat trap, which certainly does not sound like indoctrination at all,” she writes. And yet, she adds, “to believe in nothing is to change nothing. It means you’re endorsing the present, and the present is a horror.”
West is sharp too on the complicated nature of heroes and fandom. “There are pieces of pop culture that you outgrow because you get older,” she writes. “Then there are pieces of pop culture that you outgrow because you get better.” Then there are comics such as Adam Carolla, Louis C.K., Ricky Gervais, and Roseanne Barr, whose work somehow gets smaller, and worse. Of Joan Rivers, some of whose fat jokes are among the most degrading I’ve ever heard, she writes, “you can hate someone and love them at the same time. Maybe that’s a natural side effect of searching for heroes in a world not built for you.”
“Here Come the Witches” is a bit uneven, with throwaway rants about such trivialities as pockets in dresses (West, shockingly, is against them). And some readers will be put off by the dedicated and enthusiastic swearing (sometimes in ALL CAPS).
But even the weakest essays have searingly smart lines in them, and the best among them are brilliant. Most thrilling of all is the overarching tone of swashbuckling courage: West knows what she wants to say, and she really doesn’t care what you think.
“Likability is a con, and we’re all falling for it,” she writes in an essay titled “Ted Bundy Was Not Charming — Are You High?” The only way to overcome this oppressive trap is to call it out whenever we see it. “Chasing likability has been one of women’s biggest setbacks, by design,” she writes. “I don’t know that rejecting likability will get us anywhere, but I know that embracing it has gotten us nowhere.”
In the end, the book is a stirring manifesto for honesty. “If we’re going to pull our country and our planet back from the brink, we have to start living in the truth. We have to start calling things by their real names: racism is racism, sexism is sexism, mistakes are mistakes, and they can be rectified if we do the work,” she writes.
And it’s an exhortation to give a damn: “I think this goes cruelly unacknowledged in the surreal, nihilistic upside down of Trump’s America — this world is beautiful and good and worth saving. Do not despair. Despair is the death of action. Go, act, fight.”
Hachette: 260 pages, $27
Tuttle is a book critic whose work also has appeared in the Boston Globe, New York Times and Washington Post.