Hannah Gadsby memoir ‘Ten Steps to Nanette’ book review
Should we expect less? The Aussie shot to global prominence in 2018 with the release of ‘Nanette’ on Netflix, which challenged notions of what a comedy special could be through its unapologetic interrogation of sexual violence, homophobia and patriarchal structures. She remained in a groundbreaking mood with her charming 2020 follow-up, “Douglas,” a lighter but more methodically crafted exercise in deconstructing comedy. Although “Ten Steps to Nanette” has the appearance of a memoir, as Gadsby integrates her memories with wit, thoughtfulness and self-mockery, she eschews convention by meticulously framing her life through her defining work.
As Gadsby explains, the book “has two stories to tell – one is about my rather strange start to life, and the other is about my rather strange decision to end my life in comedy.” While a viewing of “Nanette” is highly recommended — in general, but also to contextualize “Ten Steps” — Gadsby sets up his memoir with clips from the show and anecdotes about its aftermath. In a fish out of water tale, she remembers hanging out with John Stamos, Norman Lear and, funnier, Jennifer Aniston at Netflix’s Emmys party. Gadsby also cleverly confronts the cultural discourse around “Nanette,” and whether it’s a stand-up special, a one-man show, or something entirely different.
It’s when “Ten Steps” veers into simpler autobiographical territory that it loses its vibe. Much of the first half is given over to a year-by-year recollection of Gadsby’s youth that is exhaustive and, at times, a bit exhausting. At one point, Gadsby acknowledges the dangers of overly forgiving storytelling, writing that “just because you can remember a detail of a story doesn’t mean it has to be part of the storytelling.” But she still packs her road to “Nanette” with too many detours and travels them too quietly.
That’s not to say the first half doesn’t provide insight. The youngest of five children, Gadsby paints a vivid portrait of her humble hometown in the Australian island state of Tasmania, and portrays her larger-than-life mother and kindly unassuming father with affection and intricacy. Even though the “steps” that replace traditional chapters can be quite lengthy – Step 3 is over 100 pages long – they are divided into subsections, including powerful interstitials that juxtapose Gadsby’s sexual awakening with the a maddening story of systemic homophobia in Tasmania.
But in the second half, when Gadsby is fast-forwarding into her late 20s and 30s and the birth of her acting career, “Ten Steps” picks up the pace. While sharing the life experiences, artistic techniques, and underlying anxieties that went into creating “Nanette,” Gadsby gets to the bottom of the show’s highly controversial dearth of traditional jokes. “If I wanted to tell the truth and create a cohesive narrative for myself that wasn’t dysphoric, if I wanted to share the literal and visceral pain of my trauma, I knew I had to invent something new,” writes- she. “And so I started writing comedy that wasn’t funny.”
As Gadsby revealed in “Nanette,” she was sexually abused as a child, raped as a youth, and attacked in a gruesome anti-gay violence case. In “Ten Steps,” she is naturally vague but remarkably vulnerable, writing, “I want the world to stop demanding gratuitous details in exchange for empathy. Entertainment in exchange for understanding. She also opens up intimately about her struggles with body image, gender identity and mental health, and her diagnosis of autism as an adult.
For a memoir where pain is a straight line – Gadsby recalls a host of health issues, including a broken arm, multiple knee injuries and gallbladder removal – it should come as no surprise that “ Ten Steps,” like “Nanette,” may be light on the laughs. But they are certainly there, especially in the pithy footnotes that Gadsby wields to great effect. (After claiming she can’t cruise with her best friend, let alone strangers, Gadsby directs readers to one such annotation: “In my defense, my best friend, Douglas, is a dog.”)
Although “Ten Steps” is billed as Gadsby’s first book, she clarifies in the introduction that it’s technically her second literary endeavor – if you count the fantasy epic she wrote at age 7 years old. pages later, she reminds the reader that she knows how to handle herself in a setup and a punchline. For a comic that has been criticized by some lost souls as not being funny enough, Gadsby certainly understands how to get the last laugh.
Thomas Floyd is an editor and writer for the Washington Post.
Ballantines Books. 400 pages. $28