Book of the Month: Little Weirds by Jenny Slate (2019)

Critical Evaluation

The only piece of fiction in Jenny Slate’s new book, “Little Weirds,” describes a love that grew old in an un-air-conditioned house by the Atlantic Ocean.

“I was trying to say goodbye to my ex-husband, who is an important person in my life and a friend,” the actress and comedian said of the story, “I Died: Bronze Tree.” After her divorce from the director Dean Fleischer-Camp in 2016, she heard that sometimes, as a healing exercise, trauma survivors reimagine painful experiences. “I decided to write for myself what my life would be if I had a relationship that lasted till the end,” she said.

Maybe this isn’t what you were expecting from Slate, who is known for voicing animated characters in television shows like “Big Mouth” and “Bob’s Burgers,” as well as the internet’s favorite anthropomorphic shell, Marcel. Nor is it what you might have assumed would emerge from the mind of the stand-up comedian whose monologues are punctuated by “poop and fart jokes,” as she put it, among other bodily concerns. But “Little Weirds” wasn’t really meant to be funny.

“People had approached me like, ‘Would you like to write some humorous blah-blah-blahs?’” Slate said. “And my answer was no, I don’t think I can.”

She proposed an allegorical eco-feminist tome that she imagined would be in the vein of bell hooks. That didn’t work out, either.

The book Slate did write, which Little, Brown will release on Nov. 5, is more autobiographical than sociological or critical, but it doesn’t quite fall into the category of personal essays. The word “divorce” only appears a few times in its pages. Disclosures are often cushioned by whimsical rhetorical devices. Proper nouns, even the name of her dog, have been largely left out. She writes about nurture and nourishment: returning to the (almost certainly haunted) house where she grew up; drinking a beer alone in the airport; saying hello to the dog first, and the human second, if at all; admiring the ferocity of other women; watching the solar eclipse in a crowd of strangers; picking the perfect flower to fill her window boxes. You might call them personal abstractions.

Bonnie Wertheim, “Jenny Slate Wrote a Book-Shaped Thing. What Is It?” The New York Times, October 25, 2019.

First Excerpt

Last summer, toward the end of a long walk, my mother went to the side of the dirt road and showed me a plant. I am used to having a rhythm with her in which she shows me something interesting in nature or architecture, and it’s like a test: Do you know what it is? And it is very pleasing when I tell her what it is, and then we both enjoy that we both know.

Sometimes I don’t know, and she likes the situation of me being “stumped” and she likes that she does know and can tell me what she knows. This is also one of the first ways I perceived power in another person: Information about art and nature feels like the best stuff to have, and if you have it, it is powerful and excellent to pass it on. That is an act of power, showing what you know, giving it to another person, realizing that as you spread it, you get to keep it but watch it grow, and by watching others have it, you learn new things about the original thing.

Second Excerpt

I went outside of my hotel to watch the highly anticipated eclipse of the sun. It happened. The sun was eclipsed. All of the people were out on the sidewalk in New York City, sharing little eyeglasses made of paper, with the plastic lenses. I had no paper glasses. I saw a stranger and I looked shyly at the glasses he had and I asked, “Can I try?” The stranger gave me his glasses so that I could watch the sun become a strange orange fang poking through one side of the sky. A stranger helped me. Specifically, he helped me look into outer space. I said thank you, obviously. Related question: After this eclipse and group experience, is everyone else’s hair also made out of necklaces now and is your heart a plum with a golden marble in it that will spin eternally, like mine is? Final comment: It is very warming to think of the adults going to places to get the paper glasses, and to think of the adults who own a small store or bodega, and that they heard about the eclipse and then ordered the paper glasses, knowing that people would want to watch the rare thing that was going to happen.