By Myriam Gurba
Coffee House Press, November 7th, 2017
175 pages, $16.95
Reviewed by M.K. Rainey

Myriam Gurba’s Mean is made up of language so rich and well-crafted, we feel as if we could eat it. We devour each word out of shame and love, out of fear and humiliation, out of lust, out of understanding and out of panic. Each word we gulp down slakes our need for the empathy and revulsion for another human’s articulately and hilariously depicted inner landscape.

From the nonfiction novel’s outset, young Myriam darts across the page with a force meant to mesmerize the reader. We follow her through childhood as she gets in fights with boys, meets her best friend, Ida, eats “Mexican” casseroles made by white people, and first experiences the manipulative behavior of white fragility in the classroom. Through short, scenic chapters, we experience both her biting wit and language, as well as the growth of a protective layer around herself, a layer that the author describes as mean. “Mean can be dazzling,” she says. “Being a bitch is spectacular.” And we believe her. When she is forced to apologize to white girls who hurled racial slurs at her, we feel the seething, justified rage, “‘Sorry,’ I said without any sincerity.” Gurba reconstitutes mean as armor to strive for, to idolize.

Mean allows the reader to experience all the injustices that shape a person’s life, as well as the “invisible imprints” left in the aftermath of trauma. When Myriam enters junior high, we sit to her right as Macaulay, a young classmate, assaults her in broad daylight, beneath their shared desk. Yet, one of the strongest aspects of this book lies in its empathy. We learn that Macaulay was in fact molested by the father of another student. Myriam asks, “if molestation is a circle, a circle of life, then isn’t the hand of every molester working through the hand of every other molester?” She not only explores the invisible imprints her molestation left behind on her own person, but on those caught in its malicious cycle. Gurba’s work caused me to step back and think about all the invisible imprints – traumatic or not – left on me, those I’ve left on others, and what kind of help or harm is subconsciously created in the world. It’s chilling to think about.

We watch Gurba paint herself redly mean, as a way to protect the vulnerable parts exposed to the world’s inhumanity: racism, sexism, homophobia. It is not difficult to empathize with the girl wrapped up in the meanness she cultivates. However, it’s the author’s strident language that gives the work its energy, in her humor and crisp, paratactic sentences that seem to punch us at every turn. She keeps us laughing, even through the darker moments, coloring the novel’s world in her sarcasm and flippant wit.

White girls are the Holy Grails of Western civilization.
I wish they could be replaced with something else. Let
there be a new grail. Let that grail be a dead Mexican
woman in a long dress. Let her name be Wisdom.

I still hang out with white girls.

Through its violent climax, Mean depicts the fractured reality of inhumanity and trauma. We live inside this pain with the author and see how it infiltrates even the tiniest cracks in our lives. I feel at times almost an intruder to the work: here I am devouring this woman’s life, this person’s struggle, and I’m compelled to keep reading. This is the spell Gurba casts. She says of another woman in the book, “I was alive and she was dead, so I ate. I ate my lunch, hair and all. We are all cannibals.” It’s as if she knows in that moment exactly what we too are doing. We are alive, we are the ones left untouched, so we eat to feel full, alive, read to understand and feel grateful and know the pain of someone else’s suffering, whether as a vicarious means of withstanding it, or without having to do so ourselves.

The emotional vicissitudes she induces within her reader are marks of the flexibility of her talent. We devour this book shamelessly, but we cling to it desperately, wanting to find the kindness that breaks up the ubiquity of the world’s meanness. Mean is a captivating spiral on what we do to each other, how humans inflict wounds and how we live in the world afterwards. It is a book that commands you, pushing and pulling you with the author’s expert language and voice, haunting you long after the pages have ended. Myriam Gurba is aware of her reader. She’s aware of the journey she’s written and where that will take us. She is aware that – in the end – she makes us all cannibals.