Let's Pretend This Never Happened

by Jenny Lawson

Cover image

Publisher: Berkley
Copyright: 2012, 2013
Printing: March 2013
ISBN: 0-425-26101-8
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 366

Buy at Powell's Books

Let's Pretend This Never Happened, subtitled (A Mostly True Memoir), is the closest that I've ever found to the book form of a stand-up comedy routine. Lawson grew up in rural Texas with a taxidermist father, frequent contact with animals in various forms of distress, an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, and a talent for creatively freaking out about things that never occur to anyone else. But, more importantly, she has a talent for putting down on paper the random thoughts that go through her head so the rest of us can read them. Not to mention excellent comic timing and absolute mastery of the strangely relevant digression.

It's always tricky to review comedy. I think tastes differ more wildly in this genre than any other. Things some people find hilarious others will find offensive or just boring. That may be particularly true of Lawson, who, similar to some of the best stand-up comics, specializes in taking off filters and saying all sorts of offensive things that people might think but not say. This kind of comedy is a knife's edge, since it can easily turn into punching down. Lawson avoids this (rather well, in my opinion) by making herself the punch line of most of the jokes.

A pretty typical paragraph of the book, so that you know the sort of thing that you're in for:

The following is a series of actual events pulled form my journal that led me to believe that our home was possessed by demons and/or built over an Indian burial ground. (Also, please note that the first part of this chapter actually happens just before the previous chapter, and the last part of it happens just after it. This could be viewed as "clunky and awkward," but I prefer to think of it as "intellectually challenging and chronologically surreal. Like if Memento was a book. About dead dogs and vaginas and puppets made out of squirrel corpses." You can feel free to use that quote if you're reviewing this chapter, or if you're a student and your teacher asks you, "What was the author trying to say here?" That was it. That's what I was trying to say. That and "Use condoms if you're going to have sex, for God's sake. There are a lot of skanks out there." That's not really covered in this book, but it's still good advice.)

That has a little bit of everything this book had for me: Lawson's somewhat surreal worries, the extended digression, a rhythm that's quite compelling once you start reading it, random uncomfortable topics, and the occasional miss that I don't find funny (the last few sentences). It's all mixed together in a slightly breathless rush of narrative momentum.

For more samples, Lawson's writing started as a blog and she's still actively blogging, so you can get a good advance sample by reading some of The Bloggess. Her tone there matches the book closely.

What makes this book more than only comedy is that Lawson is very open about her struggles with mental illness (anxiety and depression). A lot of the humor comes from "this is the ridiculous nonsense that my brain throws out on a regular basis" and inviting you to laugh along with her, but the undertone is use of humor as a coping mechanism to deal with anxiety spirals. And alongside that coping mechanism is an open-hearted message of "you are not the only person to have completely irrational reactions to the world — please laugh along with mine and feel better about yours."

Due to that, the best comparison I can make to another book I've read is to Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half. Brosh is more serious in places, more analytical, and a bit better at generalizing to experiences the reader can identify with. (And, of course, more graphical.) Lawson is more madcap, a bit more manic, and focused on absurd situations that don't normally happen to people.

I loved this book from beginning to end, and it had me laughing out-loud in multiple places. Despite being a collection of disconnected stories, it has a rhythm and flow that kept me reading. Some books of this kind are best read in small segments with a break between, but I devoured Let's Pretend This Never Happened in large chunks (and had to be careful about reading it in public and laughing too loudly).

Check first whether the sense of humor works for you, but if it does, highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-09-14

Last modified and spun 2016-06-21