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Kelly Oxford’s When You Find Out the World is Against You, reviewed: Age of anxiety

Kelly Oxford’s anxious thinking is responsible for some of the most amusing and effective essays in When You Find Out the World is Against You.

When You Find Out the World is Against You: And Other Funny Memories About Awful Moments
Kelly Oxford

In a list of people the world is stacked against, a stylish white screenwriter living in L.A. with her adorable children and celebrity friends would rank, to put it mildly, quite low. Kelly Oxford knows this better than anyone, and the title of her second essay collection refers to a particular kind of thinking, bred from anxiety, that makes every moment of your day seem engineered to harm or judge you. The author's anxious thinking is a powerful presence in the book, responsible for some of its most amusing and effective essays: an increasingly frantic call with her son's school about earthquake preparedness, a rumination on what, after years of parenting, to do once one's children are less in need of it (get a dog, of course) and a desperate attempt, as a young girl at what sounds like the worst summer camp in Alberta, to pass herself off as a stoner.

Anxiety is a rich area for Oxford, especially now. Since publishing her first book, Everything's Perfect When You're a Liar, in 2013, the Canadian's star has only risen: Hundreds of thousands of followers across Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat consume her daily missives on feminism, motherhood and McDonald's; her first book was a North American bestseller; she once got a puppy for free via Instagram. And as any suddenly popular stand-up with a career built on relatability can tell you, success in life doesn't always make for a successful bit. Anxiety, of course, doesn't care if you've got a bestselling book, or a feature film and a talk show in the works, or if you appeared on Nicole Richie's reality show, Candidly Nicole. (This is not to say successful people don't have their own set of struggles and personal issues, just that they can be tough sells as comic fodder.) And so in between the screenplays and the free puppies, we hear about Oxford's brush with the F4 tornado that ripped through Edmonton in 1987 and how her kids don't think she's cool. Albertan bloggers turned Hollywood literary It Girls: They're just like us! Kind of! "Unapologetic" (that condescending, gendered word for "honest") is a term often lobbed at Oxford, and while one gets the feeling she'd scoff at the descriptor, she is certainly not afraid to Go There, subjects-wise. In the follow-up to a volume that featured a standout essay on a self-delivered enema, Oxford discusses paranoid marital jealousy, using cigarettes as laxatives and – bravely, in this post-pebbles-in-Lena-Dunham's-sister's-vagina world – a childhood game of doctor complete with a plan to birth a baby doll from her own body. In the book's closing chapter, Oxford chronicles her history of assault as a moving accompaniment to the story of #NotOkay, a hashtag Oxford used during the U.S. election campaign while encouraging women to "tweet their first assaults." The response to her call for stories was enormous, with millions of women sharing tales of assault and raising their voices against a would-be president caught on tape talking about grabbing women by the pussy. (And yet.)

The conversations started by Oxford's hashtag were important and affecting, but the book doesn't delve too deeply into what the accumulation of stories means, except to suggest women are fundamentally unequal to men in the United States and that this is a bummer. But Oxford is not a feminist scholar and she doesn't need to be. She's at her best when dissecting domesticity, skillfully evoking childhood evenings in a family friend's basement, or the loving way one is permanently frustrated by one's siblings. As on her social-media accounts, her children provide some of the best fodder: son Henry shouting "It isn't the nineties, no one likes the phone!" after Oxford suggests voice-calling rather than responding to (literally) 600 text messages; showing her eldest daughter, Sal, a diary from Oxford's teen years, only to realize Sal, not having learned cursive writing at school, views it as "some sort of witch's tool." While these moments are entertaining and sweet, many end abruptly, without a satisfying conclusion or final punchline to tie together the witty one-liners and wacky slices of life.

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Ultimately, Oxford succeeds at presenting a glimpse inside her head; whether you like what you find there is up to you. The essays flit from subject to subject erratically, which can be jarring but also replicates the experience of a meal with a friend you haven't seen in a while – stories abruptly dropping off or blending into each other because there's so much to be said and who knows how long we have until the Big One takes us all. She spends what is realistically a little too long detailing her followers' responses to an Instagram feud she stumbled into with two overzealous sheepadoodle owners, but also gifts the world with the hashtag #NoClassNoDoodle. While she occasionally drops into gender essentialism ("dads can avoid emotions"), her examinations of the perils of motherhood are funny, sharp and unique. Rather than putting forward any manifesto or larger social message, this is simply, as Oxford says, a collection of "the stories I've told myself in order to survive."

Monica Heisey is the author of I Can't Believe It's Not Better: A Woman's Guide to Coping With Life.

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