In her new essay collection, Creep: Accusations and Confessions, Myriam Gurba confronts a wide range of horrors—murder, exploitation, beatings, betrayal, rape, imprisonment—in the lightest, yet most implacably serious way. There’s a particularly Mexican flavor to this mixture, otherworldly, like a candy skull for Dia de los Muertos: sweet, truthful, funny, and sad.
Creep teems with fantasies, and feminism, and memories; histories of corruption and revolution in Mexico; violence, racism and eugenics in the US; stories of caciques and poets, and battered and incarcerated women, all mingled with a complicated nostalgia for the author’s 1980s upbringing in Santa Maria, California. In Gurba’s imagination, the scent of cigarettes heralds the memory of her great-grandmother (“a chimney”); her grandfather’s bony, patriarchal hand pats the twelve-year-old author’s head (“‘Don’t think so hard,’ he moaned into my face. I wanted to slap the mustache off his lip, but before I could, he’d shuffled away, disappearing down the hall.”) Wisecracking high-school students she taught; lovers and friends, historical personages dead and alive—everyone crowds in alongside the large gathering of weird, scary, despicable and/or lovable relatives. This huge and unruly cast is ungovernably human; they cheat and kill people, they get thrown in prison and exhibit eye-popping racism, they serve delicious tortas, they perform sordid and disgraceful acts of all kinds, they promise to kiss the butt of an unfortunate-looking math teacher in order to get a better grade. They do stand-up comedy, collect the rattles of rattlesnakes, and admire Max von Sydow’s portrayal of Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told. But it’s Desiree, Gurba’s slightly older cousin, who comes in for the book’s tenderest and most memorable portrait.
Desiree’s life unfolded in a morass of abuse and neglect in Whittier, a long drive away from where Gurba grew up. But the cousins adored one another, and as children they created a defiant and glamorous refuge from an already hard world: “[Desiree] sparkled with mischievous charisma, the type of troublemaker you wanted to get in trouble with and who you wanted to take the heat for.” They watched The Munsters and had pillow fights, and later, when the teen Desiree, who’d begun running away from home, came to stay with Gurba’s family, Gurba began making herself up like her cousin—“cholafied,” with dark lipliner and bangs curled, ratted and sprayed. When the two grew up, Desiree confided in Myriam about the traumatizing abuse she’d suffered at the hands of her babysitters, about her attempted suicide, and about her life in prison and after it. The two-person gang they founded as kids, the “make-believe Mafia,” Pocas pero Locas, would surely have to change their name to Montónes de Locas, if the rest of us were ever given the chance to join.
You can’t help but feel the pulse rushing beneath the surface of Gurba’s prose. Her voice is filled with a golden glow of meaning, wit, and sympathy; she knows when to be discursive, when to be sad and when to kid, and when to smack a point down with force, like hammering in a nail. Reading Creep gave me a feeling of sustenance, of solace mixed with surprise, and gratitude, like sunlight warming your skin. I didn’t know I’d been lonely in this exact way; I didn’t see how fear, grief and loss could be handled quite like this; I didn’t understand how I could be simultaneously so horrified and so delighted.
That so much laughter endures in Gurba’s work is its own magic, because she herself has suffered so much—including life-threatening domestic violence and rape, racism and misogyny, exploitation and pain at work, and at home—and you’ll read about that in these essays. But don’t think for a minute that this is “inspirational writing.” It would not make good needlepoint pillows, at least not for any but the darkest, most sardonic of grandmas, but it is one of the best books I’ve ever read, an instant classic of feminism, of California, a work of philosophy, and a laff riot.
Especially since the advent of AI, technologists have persisted in expressing their annoying belief that human writers don’t do anything special, just recombine words, which makes it hard to explain to them why their machines are so terrible at writing. Maybe one way to clarify this point is to observe that because computers can perform calculations, they can, yes, “play” chess—but only sort of. Saying that Stockfish or AlphaZero can play chess is like saying that a car can run faster than a person; machines can reach the endpoint of a human effort, and sometimes dazzlingly well or quickly, but not the process, not the meaning. The algorithm can never be civilized, or learned, or kind. That may not matter in chess, but the complex techniques and purposes of human language are stubbornly resistant to scientific, philosophical or even logical systematization; just ask Wittgenstein. The particular contours of Gurba’s deep humanity, summoned up from the real materials of her mind and heart, could never be replicated by any other person, let alone by a machine.
So the next time some tech bro starts techsplaining to you about how, any minute, now, AI is going to be able to produce writing every bit as “good” as anything a human being can write, just give them a copy of Creep and hope against hope that they will obtain the faintest clue.
A final note regarding the mad wealth of sources, hundreds of them, listed at the back of Creep. Court cases, magazine articles, movies; books on zoology, geopolitics, and Hanna Arendt; transcripts of government meetings; In Cold Blood, and James and the Giant Peach; histories of Mexico, and of desegregation in the United States; a painting by Goya, and one by Andrew Wyeth. A young person studying Gurba’s sources one by one would almost necessarily emerge with a vividly enhanced worldview, and I bet if I were thirteen that is exactly what I’d be doing.
“Tyrants revel in the chasm separating the literate from the illiterate,” Gurba writes.
Her observation is all the more trenchant in these days, as the proudly illiterate Florida parent, Daily Salinas (who told a reporter, “I’m not a reader. I’m not a book person”) succeeded in removing books from an entire school district’s libraries, and as Ron DeSantis’s ham-fisted takeover of curricula and education policy unleashes a catastrophic brain drain on Florida’s public university system.
Creep arrives at a moment when inclusive, elegant, egalitarian writing is at a special premium. It’s a stylistic thrill ride, a comic masterpiece and a tragic one; a kind of prayer, and a heartstopping reminder of what real writing is, and what it’s for.