So it is unsurprising that Schumer’s new essay collection, out this week from Gallery Books, is peppered with self-effacements and mini-masochisms. The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo is named for Schumer’s “tramp stamp”—hers features tribal art of indiscriminate origin, courtesy of an artist who, inking under the influence, slightly skewed its angle—and in its pages Schumer compares herself to a Cabbage Patch Kid, a Garbage Pail Kid, “that eighties doll Kid Sister,” “an old sunken ship covered in plankton and kelp,” and “a still of Rupert Murdoch in a rocking chair.” Those jokes, though, are relatively rare. The book instead offers, overall—for author and reader alike—a compelling kind of catharsis: It is, contrary to the postmodern parfait that is Schumer’s standard act, decidedly un-layered. It is Schumer, the celebrity, shedding Schumer, the schtick. It is a memoir that is also an unapologetic paean to self-love. In that, The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo finds a new way for Schumer to be radical: It treats feminine self-confidence not in the way it is too often regarded, as a BrainyQuotable truism or an inborn gift or a fuzzy aspiration or, indeed, a source of shame, but rather as a skill like any other—something that is developed and worked at and thus, most importantly, earned.
* * *
One one level, The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo is simply another memoir, squarely in the funny-lady-sharing-stories-of-her-life manner of Poehler/Fey/Rhimes/Kaling/Dunham/Dratch/Greer and their ilk. And it features, as per the now-solidified conventions of that genre, a mix of the searing and the soaring: tales of minor embarrassment and major, of successes and failures, of flashpoints and turning points, all of them punctuated by jokes, cheeky lists of things liked and/or hated by the author, and bits of wisdom couched in protestations that “I have no advice to give.” But Schumer’s stories are really, particularly good. They concern failed romantic exploits (many); successful romantic exploits (an unnamed rock star, an unnamed hockey player, an unnamed wrestler, a carpenter named Ben); what it’s like to grow up rich; what it’s like to grow up no-longer-rich; what it’s like to have parents divorce; what it’s like to lose a friend, and wait tables, and be caught shoplifting, and live with weird Craigslist roommates, and be on comedy tour, and generally fake-it-’til-you-make-it.
Schumer’s own version of the memoir sear-soar—one moment brings a detailed taxonomy of scones, the next several statistics about gun violence—is woven together with transitions that are often adept (“I wish I could Irish-good-bye my way out of this chapter,” Schumer notes, after professing her love for the maneuver) and sometimes not (“Anywhoozle…”). But the depth creates, overall, an impression of a person who is much, much more than a collection of witty one-liners and irony-laced self-deprecations. Along with the story heralded by Schumer’s admission that “one of the best nights of my life was just a one-night stand in Tampa,” we also get stories of her dad’s MS—of the disease’s onset (one episode came during an ill-fated family trip to Adventureland) and of its steady ravaging of her father’s body and mind. We get recollections of the time, at once short and too long, that Schumer spent living with an abusive boyfriend. (“I’m telling this story,” she notes, “because I’m a strong-ass woman, not someone most people picture when they think ‘abused woman.’ But it can happen to anyone.”) We get the story, too, of the sexual abuse she endured from an early boyfriend—the biographical basis of Schumer-the-performer’s coinage of the term “grape,” or “gray-area rape.”