When we first got the Texts from Jane Eyre book in the office, I flipped through it with some curiosity, wondering if Ortberg was going to search for meaning in these funny bits, whether she’d expand beyond the medium of text; and thankfully, the book doesn’t even attempt to be anything but texts from your favorite fictional characters. What makes it a complete joy is the breadth of Ortberg’s knowledge and love — she understands, perfectly, how the extreme passions of literary characters (or writers like Emily Dickinson) lead to ridiculous, dramatic, over-the-top texts, and the juxtaposition of all these feelings with the universal mundanity of technology is hilarious.
If Texts From Jane Eyre‘s pleasures come from its succinctness, from its commitment to rendering the whole of the western canon in quick hilarious bits, then Science… For Her! is kind of the opposite — it takes the idea of bite-sized jokes, then kicks it on the ground, beats it up, and keeps going until the joke turns into straight dadaist surrealism… and then spins back around into a joke. It’s even funnier to appreciate because Megan Amram is good at one-liners, which feels like the opposite of this book — after all, she came to fame as a “Twitter comedian,” and is now working as a writer for Parks and Recreation.
But there’s something heady and conceptual and gross at the heart of Science… For Her! and it’s really funny as a result. It starts with a sort of la-di-dah, feminized tone, the voice of a dopey gal who has taken all the lessons of vintage, Helen Gurley Brown-era how-to-find-a-man-and-keep-him Cosmo to heart, and is now writing a science textbook, but really it’s all wrong and mostly manic and insane.
You’ll know whether you’re into it by the first bit of book, “Dedication (to all my besties!!!),” a masterpiece of Amram dedicating the book to her best friends: “Kennedy (my best friend who was an MTV VJ), Lindsay (my best friend when I wake up with stigmata [only happened a couple of times]), Audrey (my best friend when I need to practice kissing).” This goes on for twelve pages. Eventually, Amram gets dumped by her boyfriend, goes on a downward spiral, discovers meth in order to get skinny, but most of all, she talks about science. And there’s a two page centerfold that is just the word KALE!!!! in beautiful type.
Like any joke, it’s better for you to experience it. But the ways in which this book takes the sort of faux you go girl! girl power-ism of lady mags and skewers it into something deep, dark, and twisted shows what a big, stupid lie it is in the first place. It’s a fascinating, high-wire performance piece of a book and it made me laugh like a loon and sometimes I had to put it down because it was just too much.
Where I think these two books meet is in a sort of jubilant embrace of what’s sold to women as femininity, but as they embrace ideas like “literary men have wisdom” and “lady mag techniques will help you get a man and understand the world,” they trip over the idiot concept, laughing all the way. If irony came first for a certain class of comedians, this one manages to be the work of enthusiasts on first glance and the irony comes with the implications, afterwards. It’s a very smart, tricky thing to pull off, and I’m happy to see more comic female writers taking what was so unique about The Hairpin when it was in its groove and pushing it into a completely different, bizarre place.