REVIEW

Something That May Shock and Discredit You, by Daniel Mallory Ortberg, is a book that lives up to its title

Daniel Mallory Ortberg. Picture: Supplied

Daniel Mallory Ortberg. Picture: Supplied

  • Something That May Shock and Discredit You, by Daniel Mallory Ortberg. Scribe. $29.99.

As a wide reader of memoir and essay collections, I usually feel as if I know what I'm going to be getting when I open to the first page of new release.

This is especially true if the writer is familiar to me, as was the case with Daniel Mallory Ortberg, who is best known for the lit journal he founded, The Toast, and his bestselling debut book, Texts from Jane Eyre.

But the humour writer's latest book, a collection of essays on identity and transitioning (Ortberg is a transgender man) was definitely not what I expected.

Where Ortberg's dry humour and sarcasm is familiar to me, I wasn't prepared for the depth contained in this book, the layers of social and cultural analysis, and the theological critique that runs throughout the narrative.

The latter, in particular, genuinely did shock me, as the title suggested sardonically that it may.

However, for readers familiar with Ortberg's family history, and the fact that his father is an evangelical Christian pastor, the writer's preoccupation with theology won't come as a surprise.

Something That May Shock and Discredit You is not quite a collection of essays - rather, it is a series of vignettes, most very short, that alternate from straight humour to more reflective pieces, often returning to the bible story of Jacob wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32:22-32) as a metaphor for transitioning.

Sections of the book are painful in their humour, dark and melancholy while simultaneously showcasing Ortberg's remarkable talent for satire.

In "Pirates at the Funeral": "It feels like somebody died", But Someone Actually Didn't, Ortberg unpacks the common refrain heard from trans people who come out to their friends and family about their transition, only to hear that their decision to live as their true selves makes others feel as though they are dying, that they must grieve the gender being lost.

Ortberg's talent is in exploring tropes like this, that really highlight the inadequate understanding of transgender people by modern society, in a way that is both funny and high impact.

Whilst you get the impression he finds the reactions of people to his transition wryly humorous, he doesn't flinch from earnestness, and admitting the genuine heartache and turmoil experienced while he reckoned with his gender identity pre-transition.

Remaining true to form, popular culture and literature play a big role in Ortberg's musings.

A highlight of the collection is the very short but devastatingly funny "The Matriarchs of Avonlea Begrudgingly Accept Your Transition", told through a conversation between Rachel Lynde and Marilla Cuthbert from the classic Anne of Green Gables.

Ortberg captures the voice of these familiar characters perfectly, and twists them to create a truly masterful piece of humour writing.

Similarly, "On Wednesdays We Mean Girls Wore Pink" uses the voices of characters from the smash hit movie Mean Girls and a sort of magic realism timeline to satirise some of the appalling tropes of the film, including the ridiculing of homosexuality which the film has been roundly criticised for in the almost 20 years since its release.

But perhaps the true highlight of the collection is the essay "How I Intend To Comport Myself When I Have Abs Someday". Ortberg describes the type of person he would be if he had abs, in a voice that is so nonchalant it's hilarious, and demonstrates his unique ability to insightfully describe a common feeling in society in a way that strips away pretence and shows the absurdity of our obsession with looks (while admitting that he's not immune from said obsession himself).

Reading this collection is not easy. Part of Ortberg's brilliance is his quick mind, but there are times when it feels as though his ideas jump ahead faster than the reader can keep up, and some of the essays are harder to absorb than others.

The first half of the collection includes numerous dense quotes from the Bible, which can be hard going and creates a somewhat stilted pace in the book.

However, Ortberg really hits his stride about halfway through the collection, and some of the essays contained are truly exceptional pieces of writing.

For those who have no firsthand experience of gender transitioning, this book is an education in empathy, solidarity and compassion, and an ode to the courage and resilience of transgender people.

It'll make you think, laugh, and maybe reconsider some of your preconceptions about gender.

If nothing else, you'll never look at the Bible the same way again.

  • Zoya Patel is the Canberra author of No Country Woman: A Memoir of Not Belonging.
This story Identity, dark humour and pain first appeared on The Canberra Times.