So powerfully does Gurba capture this strange, seasick feeling—of good places unexpectedly turning into bad ones, suddenly having to stretch to include the worst thing that’s happened to her—that it pervades not only the rest of the book but everything that came before it ... If part of Mean is a record of these past silences, a tape people tried to erase, then its flip side is the sound of what was suppressed—the voices of Gurba and the kids she grew up with, brown and queer and female voices, voices that don’t always speak English. As we follow Gurba from early childhood to young adulthood, we listen to these people speaking loudly and hilariously and truthfully. Gurba has a special skill for capturing the sly friendships of young children, and the way so much adolescent intimacy derives from shared conspiracy.
One of the more difficult dimensions of reading Mean is the sense one gets of a life spoiled, damaged, likely beyond recovery. The loss is poignant ... Language becomes the artful manner through which Gurba can articulate the particularity of her experience while connecting it to the abuse that others, like Sophia, have suffered ... In Gurba’s hands, the interruption of straight chronology serves more than just rhetorical or dramatic effect; it foregrounds the burdens of memory on the body ... Mean demands our attention not only as a painfully timely story, but also as an artful memoir ... Mean is a powerful, vital book about damage and the ghostly afterlives of abuse.
Myriam Gurba is a self-professed 'final girl' and Mean is her testimony: a scalding memoir that comes with a full accounting of the costs of survival, of being haunted by those you could not save and learning to live with their ghosts ... Mean calls for a fat, fluorescent trigger warning start to finish — and I say this admiringly. Gurba likes the feel of radioactive substances on her bare hands. She wants to find new angles from which to report on this most ancient of stories, to zap you into feeling. She hunts for new language, her own language, to evoke the horror and obscene intimacy of sexual violence ... The book keeps revolving between these poles of horror and humor, sometimes wobbling on its axis. Gurba is addicted to terrible puns, and they get worse and more numerous as the book goes on...Worse, the compulsive punning and jokiness distract from the book’s more ambitious possibilities — and its most interesting tension ... It feels as if Gurba is drawn to these details not from ghoulishness but from a need to make her own suffering and fear feel more real to her. The book’s clear forebear is The Red Parts, Maggie Nelson’s book about the murder of her Aunt Jane. I wished Gurba had wrestled with, as Nelson does, what it means to use a dead woman, a stranger, in this way: as a blank slate on which to project her fantasies and fears.
Gurba approaches these topics with ample doses of dark humor, and I found myself both laughing and cringing from page to page. Gurba’s experience as a spoken word poet shines through in her colloquial quips and clever turns of phrase. It’s not an easy feat to inject wit into such a heavy subject matter, but Gurba does so with tact ... Gurba offers an alternative narrative in which meanness, hardness, and bluntness are valid and valuable responses to patriarchy, oppression, and violence ... There is no subtlety or euphemism here, only stark realities. In Mean, Gurba is offering readers an alternate take on victimization and trauma.
Myriam Gurba’s Mean is the latest in a tear of recent autofiction that employ the genre to showcase the complications of modern women’s lives … With the familiar trappings of a traditional coming-of-age novel—school uniforms, the unwelcome smell of a neighbor’s kitchen, friendships gone sour, deep parental devotion—Gurba demands her reader recognize her dense life as one equal to any other, as valid as that of Sweet Valley High’s Jessica and Elizabeth. But unlike a series, unspooling through predictable and deeply sequential plot twists, Gurba condenses an entire girlhood march into adulthood into one slim novel … Bruised but exuberant, Gurba’s brash voice eschews any sanctimonious overtones.
Gurba’s college years are harrowing and heartbreaking as she reckons with guilt and her own privilege, and casts a necessarily securitizing eye on rape culture ... the book sets itself up as a challenge — to empathize, to tell the truth and to stay awake to the violence done to women (and minorities) every day, and the various ways in which our society works to erase their dignities and identities, not to mention their bodies. The good news is that Gurba is a sensitive, occasionally caustic and always compassionate guide.
Therein is the weapon — dark, biting, occasionally uncomfortable humor — that Gurba wields repeatedly in the book, heading off any descent into despair. She doesn’t shy from the horror of the attack on her in 1996 and the one on Torres a few months later. But she isn’t cowed by it. And she won’t be identified by it ... Gurba writes in bursts of short sentences and tosses in pithy asides...lending further punch to Mean. A certain meanness, if you will.
Gurba’s particular meanness is confrontational, deliberate, and very, very funny. She goes for the throat, then bats the reader playfully on the head ... If Gurba’s sentences can be elegant, they rarely stay that way for long—they’re invariably uglified or camped with an abrupt tonal shift. In this way, Gurba’s mean streak unsettles not just social but aesthetic propriety. If the dominant mode of literary prose is realism characterized by quiet, meaningful details, Gurba goes for vulgarity and volume ... Henri Bergson famously described laughter as 'a momentary anesthesia of the heart,' a coldness that is pure intellect. Gurba’s comedy is sometimes that—deploying detachment as a kind of survival strategy. More often her punch lines are punches, and they land.
Gurba attempts to break down walls of indifference, whether through form or probing content. With its icy wit, edgy wedding of lyricism and prose, and unflinching look at personal and public demons, Gurba’s introspective memoir is brave and significant.
Gurba maintains her wry tone even when she pivots to discussing her sexual assault by a stranger. Her dark humor isn’t used for shock value alone, offering instead a striking image of deflection and coping in the face of real pain and terror, such as when recounting being raped, she describes her humiliation upon realizing she’s wearing her period underwear: 'Girls know what I’m talking about,' she quips. These bleak circumstances doused in Gurba’s stark wit linger past the book’s final passages.