Toil and Trouble

Lindy West's The Witches Are Coming Grapples with the Tumultuous Present

To cap off a year that saw Shrill debut on Hulu, the Seattleite's second book of essays takes on dark topics, but leavens them with wit and hope.

By Stefan Milne October 22, 2019 Published in the November 2019 issue of Seattle Met

On October 15, 2017—five days after his son, Ronan Farrow, ran The New Yorker’s first landmark Harvey Weinstein article—Woody Allen, interviewed by BBC, warned of a “witch hunt atmosphere,” in which “every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself.”

Two days later, Seattle writer Lindy West ran an op-ed in The New York Times: “Yes, This Is a Witch Hunt. I’m a Witch and I’m Hunting You.” What followed was typically Westian—a funny polemic that takes absurd usage and turns it into a lens to spot pervasive cultural rot.

In West’s second collection of essays, The Witches Are Coming, out November 5, the idea becomes a refrain, a framing device. The first piece, “They Let You Do It,” focuses on Trump’s love of the phrase “WITCH HUNT!,” for him a branded “incantation” on Twitter, West writes.

Though topics range from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop to Ted Bundy, Trump looms over the book. West’s rise from columnist—at The Stranger, Jezebel, The Guardian—to celebrity writer has coincided with a grim political moment. She started writing for The New York Times in early 2016, when her first book, Shrill, landed. This March, an adaptation produced by Elizabeth Banks premiered on Hulu starring Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant. West spent this year working on the second season. “It’s like, man, my life finally got really fun,” she told me over the phone. “But now we’re all going to die.” She paused. “Sorry—I don’t believe that. I mean, we all are, but I also have hope.”

We’re all going to die, but I also have hope. Throughout the book, over 18 essays, West loves precisely such turns. In one piece, she delves into Twitter harassment and why she left. In another, she looks to a Seattle musical gear–swapping forum—which shut down men who complained about certain dealers charging white people slightly more—as an example of how Twitter might quell its hate problems. In “Is Adam Sandler Funny?” after a page-long intro about procrastinating and watching Zelda tutorial videos, she investigates the comedian who she, as a girl, loved on SNL. She does a feminist breakdown of 10 Sandler movies and isolates “seven essential components”: “1. Adam Sandler seems like he’s the boy who’s kind of a loser, BUT WEALLY HE’S DA BEST BOY and it’s the wesponsible guy who’s BAD!.... 5. Adam Sandler urinates in public.”

Then comes the swerve. West attended SNL when Sandler hosted this year. She cried, in part out of ongoing attachment, and in part “for the sense memory of being young, for the years when you can love things so purely without complication.” Then she notices the male SNL cast members (also crying) seem especially luminous because “in the worlds [Sandler] constructed, comedy boys were king. Girls deserved more than a glow reflected.” It’s both a development in the argument and one of her favorite rhetorical moves: I liked this stuff, too, but that doesn’t make it okay.

When West lacks a clear subject, she can get so discursive that the book loses focus. Large sections—whole paragraphs, whole pages—read like the news on a years-long delay. In the first essay, West devotes four of the 20 pages to a recap of Trump’s Access Hollywood tape. More than two and a half of those pages are taken directly from her Times op-ed published the day after the video ran. When you get a pointed commentary just as news breaks—as you’re still processing—you’re fortified. When you get the same three years later, you skim.

But then she brings you back, with wit or wisdom. Another strong piece peels back the layers in Joan Rivers’s legacy, that of the trailblazer who left a wake of ash, a woman comic who burned other women based on sexist standards. For West, Rivers at once showed “just how powerful and funny and excellent and strong a woman could be, and she used our fascination, our rapturous attention, to brutalize us.” It, like the Sandler piece, highlights one of West’s greatest gifts, beyond her voice and humor—her ability to shine clarifying light on the dark, knotted bits of culture without divesting herself of that culture completely. It’s something she does even with the city she grew up in and still lives in.

I asked how she felt writing dispatches from one of the liberal “bubbles” we heard about after the 2016 election. “I’m happy to live in a bubble,” she said. “Although Seattle’s not as much of a bubble as it thinks.” She mentioned soaring rents, the criminalization of homelessness. “I love it here… I think that if you love something, you don’t bail on it. If I have issues with the way Seattle is functioning, I guess I gotta stay here and vote here and be politically engaged here.”

► Lindy West, Nov 26, Town Hall Seattle, Sold Out

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