I'm Just a Person
nolead begins By Tig Notaro
Ecco. 256 pp. $26.99 nolead ends
Reviewed by Hillary Rea
The last several years have brought a trend of stand-up comedians releasing memoirs. These tend to follow a formula: one part childhood anecdote, one part career foibles, and one part listicle (attn. Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, and Lena Dunham).
But Tig Notaro's I'm Just a Person isn't like that. Notaro's book is no Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea. If anything, it's a companion piece to Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking. The inside cover should include an advisory warning: This book will break your heart, form lumps in your gut, and trigger uncontrollable sobs.
As prologue, Tig includes handwritten letters from her mother, Susie, and her biological father, Pat. They signal that this book scores high on the tragedy scale.
I'm Just a Person reminds us of one horrific year in Notaro's life. This is the well-told story in her groundbreaking stand-up album, Live; in a documentary on Netflix; and in an onslaught of media coverage. The book reveals gruesome details of her mother's last breath and the experience of watching someone die right in front of you.
An onstage bit in Live recounted how the hospital sent Notaro's dead mother a customer satisfaction survey. Here, Notaro prints the questions from the survey as cold, morbid facts. There is an in-depth look into her frightening diagnosis of C. difficile colitis - and a separate cancer diagnosis later. She walks us through every step of the latter, her avoidance of follow-up visits to the doctor, and the inside joke of, "Hey, wanna touch my cancer?" before the cancer even came to be. Toward the book's end, she points out she has "a 7 percent chance of imminent, early death, and not a day goes by that I am unaware of this."
Powerful as the story is, sometimes the edits are clunky. Some jokes in unnecessary places fall flat, puns like "picturing my scars moving from the background to scars of the show." In early chapters, Notaro jumps without transition from childhood to early career stories to her established comedy persona. But in latter chapters, Notaro finds a groove, intertwining poignant childhood memories with scenes from the present.
Peppered throughout are pencil illustrations by Tony Achilles. At times, it feels as though they are there only to beef up the page count. But one particular illustration toward the end, of her father waving goodbye while his 1970s van launches into outer space, conjures enough tears to soak the page.
The chapters on Notaro's relationship with her biological father extract beauty from pain. She pays tribute to a man she hardly knew, who died while she was writing her memoir. Just another tragedy added to the pile.
"I certainly never imagined that success would arrive in tandem with stress, mourning, and deadly disease," Notaro writes. "I still felt like an imposter." With this book, she shares her story with an open heart broken and rebuilt several times over. This raw retelling, far removed from her stand-up persona, brings us closer to it.