Aparna Nancherla Proves Herself an Unreliable Narrator in Debut Essay Collection

Books Reviews Aparna Nancherla
Aparna Nancherla Proves Herself an Unreliable Narrator in Debut Essay Collection

In attempting to write her way out of self-doubt, Aparna Nancherla, in her debut essay collection, Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself, and Imposter Syndrome, asserts herself as a master of the comedic medium. Nancherla leverages and wields comedy’s functionality to its full potential in order to share the vulnerable, compelling burden of existence with her readers. This book lands her squarely in a position of authority amongst the quiet, contemplative types of comedians; beyond the identities people can see and demand her to acknowledge whilst on stage (read: Indian-American, woman), her sharp and quick comedic voice lends itself to her prominent role amongst the great cynicsthe female “curmudgeionne,” a title she has earned by being so good at being so sad.

Nancherla deftly draws connections between her observationalist position as comedy’s fly on the wall and the public’s confused response to her “whole deal” as a stand-up, when the dull, droll buzzing they’re expecting to hear from her performance sounds more closely akin to a three-dimensional human being regaling her life experiences and point of view, rather than white noise they can easily swat away and ignore. She criticizes a society that assumes they know how every immigrant story ends, and favors so unanimously the loudest voices in the room. 

Nancherla writes about perception, the creative process, and the pain of existence with vulnerability, thoughtful divulgence, and gracious moderation, decentering herself to speak on topics such as racial tokenism. She gives readers a taste of the depth of her despair, guiding us through the guilt, pressures, and unmet expectations she navigates on a day-to-day basis. Nancherla paints a picture of what it takes to get to the other side of negative thoughts, low self-worth, and an oppressive society that disavows slowness, quietness, and introspection.

Throughout her career, she has fought to make a space for herself and her comedy both within her stand-up community and with audiences, employing the sharpest tools in her arsenal: a begrudging reluctance, crippling procrastination, and a boat-load of self-doubt. Her comedic writing in this book largely focuses on her inner world and how she, an introvert, relates with her external environment, ormore often than notdoesn’t. 

“If you get too caught up in your own behind-the-scenes (an introvert specialty),” Nancherla posits, “you miss your cue to show up in the real world.” Whether in social settings or as a way to get ahead via networking, she’s never been one to really put herself out there, which makes for an even more compelling case for why audiences and readers should be on her side. Never self-pitying, she shows how much work it requires for her to just do the bare minimum.

A society obsessed with extroversion is no hospitable place for an introvert, Nancherla confirms. Although the line for how much social connection we need is malleable and differs from person to person, she demonstrates how a hyper-extroverted society invalidates the introvert’s way of living or thinking, and has made her question her own place in the modern landscape, especially amongst her comedic peers. Nancherla describes her struggle to fit inas someone “perpetually overwrought” with worry and insecurityand how her will to perform stand-up was almost lost entirely due to her near-debilitating nerves.

Through her adept, wry storytelling, she showcases how mentally and emotionally sick the technological revolution is making our society, why we neglect introverts and vilify them to the point of isolationist retreat, and how she uses content creation as a means to quiet her nagging feelings of mediocrity and laziness.

In an industry that thrives off of the content you feed itwhether that’s more tweets, appearances, or “output,” however it’s definedNancherla resists these demands first as an act of survival. In her whip smart, expertly-written debut, she takes apart her reclusive tendencies and wall of resistance to productivity by analyzing the culture we live in and who an overworked labor poolespecially that of entertainersserves. Unreliable Narrator is both sensitive and side-splitting, as well-researched as it is relatable. Nancherla walks readers through the course of her career, her kamikaze humor infiltrating even the darkest, most revealing parts of her narrative.

The essay that speaks to me the most out of the collection is “Failure Resume.” As a perfectionist, I tend not to see the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to rejection. Spiritualists, wise people, and liars will tell you that everything happens for a reason, so I’ve since learned to accept rejection and move on from it—but when you’re in the thick of a struggle dependent on your own capabilities, strengths, and accomplishments, it’s hard not to take failure personally. With humor and candor, Nancherla relates to this sentiment eloquently and gracefully in her fictitious resume of real failures, a piece her editor incidentally wanted to cut out from the book.

As a (perhaps unfairly) self-regarded, high-functioning failure, I relate to her stories of procrastination and unmet expectations (this very article is past deadline!) because of the way she makes her incredibly personal experiences with fear into something universalizing. Nancherla pairs every anecdote with layers of research and contextualization, emphasizing how hostile our world can be to those who it deems different or too sensitive.

In this life, and in her book, her knack for being funny is Aparna Nancherla’s great gift, even though the invitation clearly said not to bring anything. She’s not having a “good” time, nor ever really “happy to be here,” per se. But, taking readers along on her intimate journey towards acceptance, incrementally, she gets better at believing in herself. That has to count for something, right?

Unreliable Narrator is on sale now.

Felicia Reich is an intern at Paste.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin