Lindy West’s new book of essays, “The Witches are Coming,” is the highly anticipated follow-up to her incisive 2016 collection, “Shrill,” which was adapted into a TV show by Hulu this year. West returns with her signature wit and unapologetic snark — she’s angry at cis white men, especially those of a political ilk, and she’s not afraid to talk about it.
The last sentence of the collection’s first essay, “They Let You Do It,” serves as the punchline of the book: “This is a witch hunt. We’re witches, and we’re hunting you.” It’s an effective quip, especially as an antidote to President Trump’s repeated use of the phrase to dismiss investigations into his alleged political wrongdoings.
“Witches” is rooted in that ire, against cis white men who insist they’re the true victims, and most essays make compelling points about social and environmental injustice. But some succeed more than others. In “Ted Bundy Was Not Charming — Are You High?,” West attempts to make a nuanced point about toxic masculinity. She connects the concept of “likability” to safety, pointing out the alarming way in which men like Bundy are revered for their charisma, even at their trial for serial murder.
“On the other hand,” West writes, “women. Is there such a thing as a likable woman? … Likability in a sexist, racist culture is not objective — it’s compulsory femininity, the gender binary, invisible labor, whiteness, smallness, sweetness.” But lines away from this point, she refers to Ted Bundy admirers (and incels in general) with homophobic dismissal. Even as a throwaway line, the surprisingly tone-deaf insult undermines the core of the essay. It’s not the thoughtful use of humor West’s readers expect from her. And while the oppression of the gender binary is acknowledged, that binary is perpetuated in that very same argument (“On the other hand, women.”). It’s hard to avoid using this binary language but important in a book that deals with social justice; it’s tiny corners like these where those harmful structures assert their power.
This is where anti-racist and queer frameworks are needed to build a progressive conversation about how to dismantle white-supremacist, cis-hetero patriarchy. For example, Ibram X. Kendi’s latest book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” actively grounds racism in language; he discards the term “systemic racism,” which is abstract, in favor of the more concrete and urgent “racist policies.” Queer feminist thinkers like Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa have similarly contributed language frameworks that we would all do better to incorporate.
Many of the essays in “The Witches Are Coming” address West’s own problematic faves, especially the white comedians she grew up loving, like Adam Sandler and Joan Rivers. The openness with which West writes about “cancel culture” is refreshing; she connects the disturbing aspects of their work to the broader context of a society that is “rigged” to make sure cis white men maintain absolute power in pop culture — and culture in general. West argues that “… people are dying to forgive you if you just live in the truth,” which is a quietly electric argument to make. Most people who get “canceled” don’t make sufficient apologies. What would happen if they did?
In one of the strongest essays, “Do, Make, Be, Barf,” West recounts a visit to one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop expos. The humor here is perfectly placed in its self-awareness, and it’s paired with a remarkably moving earnestness. The theme of magic here takes the form of a lifestyle guru who appeals even to people who do not identify with the brand. In reference to probiotic juice and vaginal eggs, West asks, “Why not make life a little more magical by believing in magic? What’s the harm?” Answering her own question, she contends the danger lies in taking too much in the name of self-care, for neglecting to care for others as much as ourselves. Self-care has been appropriated by brands like Goop, turning it into a capitalist status symbol. West is at her best when her humor and sincerity complement each other as perfectly as they do here.
There is plenty of sincerity in these pages. In one essay, West writes, “The only safe space is nihilism … Both sides, inasmuch as there are two ‘sides,’ are not equally stupid or equally bad. The notion that they are is human-extinction-level dangerous.” Many of these essays grapple with base morality, which feels apt. The world demands this reflection — there is so much evil with so much power, there is the looming problem of climate change. These are difficulties of morality, and West argues there is a pressing need to fight for what is beautiful and right. In this way, “The Witches Are Coming” succeeds in balancing darkness with light, despair with a kind of reverence, playfulness with rage.
That’s an alchemy, a spell, that West can pull off better than most.
“The Witches Are Coming” by Lindy West, Hachette Books, 272 pp., $27
Author appearance: Lindy West will appear as part of Seattle Arts and Lectures’ “Women You Need to Know” series at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 26, at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle, townhallseattle.org