'Mean' is a ferocious and stunning memoir

Friday, November 17, 2017 - 12:57am

“These kinds of things happen,” a nurse tells our narrator, “You’re going to have to get over this.”

It’s a moment that reverberates with an awful intensity throughout Myriam Gurba’s “Mean,” a book that punches you in the gut, repeatedly and with reckless abandon.

She states her purpose about 15 pages into the memoir: “Being rude to men who deserve it is a holy mission.” It’s touchstone and a rallying cry for her, as well as a framework that guides the whole book.

But Gurba’s meanness is not born out of malice, but rather a carefully considered response to a world that has been ruthlessly mean to her. Sometimes the cruelty she experienced was vindictive and purposeful, sometimes the result of cold apathy. Regardless of intent, the effect is felt and explored throughout “Mean” with crystalline precision. Or, in her own words, “Art is one way to work out touch gone wrong.”

Gurba sits at the nexus of a complicated set of identities: queer, mixed race, Mexican-American, and a lot of her life story is about navigating those complexities. She details her experiences growing up in the thick of white suburbia, her time at UC Berkeley and her life after college. Her stories are often painful, the work of a writer parsing out the nuances of her most vivid traumas. She sifts through these experiences, her memories and the world around her with a biting sense humor and a seemingly endless array of impossibly precise observations.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a young writer sharper, more honest and more ruthless than Gurba in 2017. Her work is a master class in control, yet bursting with detail and emotion. To read “Mean” is to be guided through the world by the deft hand of a skilled wordsmith and a brilliant thinker.

Her sense of humor in particular stands out. It functions less like a party trick and more like a knife, filling the book with moments of intense clarity. “Death by anorexia is a fail-safe sexual-assault prevention technique,” she deadpans, and the line hits you like an electric shock.  Sometimes it’s a little lighter, like an earlier anecdote of a young Gurba banning boys from a club she had formed in third grade, forcing them to pass an impossible obstacle course in order to enter. “That had been my strategy,” she writes, “To give his sex an insurmountable initiation. Like the literacy tests given to black folks in the American South before the Voting Rights Act passed. I was an early-onset feminist.”

For the most part, though, “Mean” is deadly serious. It’s filled with history, trying to make sense of the remnants of past traumas that surround her — eating disorders, sexual assault, mental illness and racism. Sometimes she finds a kind of catharsis in all of this, and sometimes she doesn’t. “Guilt is a ghost,” she writes over and over, reciting it like a mantra or a prayer. She’s stuck on this phrase, on her past, but “Mean” makes no attempts to get rid of the ghosts or the guilt. It’s about learning to live with being haunted.

Gurba offers no easy answers, but the existence of “Mean” is a testament to her resilience, a tribute to survival itself. Ultimately, she makes a damn good case for being mean, for turning the blunt instrument of rage into something a little more pointed. A little less vulnerable and a litte more vicious. “Sometimes, it keeps us alive,” she says.

I believe her. Because these kinds of things happen.