Sunday, June 15, 2008

"Our Dumb World: The Onion Atlas" Book Review

Mine never came with the "Free Globe Inside" promised on the cover, but I bet it was stolen from my copy which I borrowed from the library. It's a challenge to take on around two hundred countries, maps, flags, and funny little photos and keep you not only amused but educated-- at your own ethnocentricity, ignorance, half-baked notions of everywhere else outside a hundred miles from where you live, and those hazy regions where what passes here for fact actually makes sort of sense. Madagascar's ruled by lemurs; Taiwanese labor under a perpetual sense of second-class diligence; Western Sahara's Africa's success story thanks to its (un-)inhabitability; Andorra's a giant retail outlet. Uruguay could be Paraguay, Chile's too skinny, and Delaware stays a state only to warn the Federal government not to make that mistake again.

It's best to peruse this a few pages at a time, then to give it a rest. Like reading "The Onion" itself, the humor's certainly unrelenting, but the snarky, ironic, and half-erudite, half-idiotic tone verges both on brilliance and sarcasm in copious amounts of one-liners, cartographic captions, and haughty, sophomoric text. It's instructive to have your own lack of education and information overload tossed back at you, from places you barely know on real maps, and as ignored footnotes in textbooks. You'll find such reading habits excoriated when you get to San Marino!

My ancestral land, I found, after centuries of British subjugation, "has at last managed to beat the stereotype of the poor, drunken, fighting Irishman to a bloody pulp." (141) Across the Northern border, I can attest to the veracity of this claim: the people there "are envied for their beautiful accent, a lyrical brogue that reminds many listeners of an aggressive, expletive-ridden poem." (140) Meanwhile the "Leading Cause of Death" remains, post-ceasefire, apparently "going to the pub."

Elsewhere, in my home state, "at least it's sunny." I agree with what the experts here say. San Francisco's the "alternative-lifestyle capital" where you find thousands of young men "living openly off trust-fund money wherever you look." My hometown "is home to some of the kindest and most outgoing people in the world until they realize you're not an agent." If you break into showbiz, you face "the biggest acting role" of your life: "pretending like nothing is wrong while everything around" you turns to #$*%. (022)

Mexico's frontier's charted, where "dozens of Americans" can be found "crossing the border in hopes of escaping work." (025) Hungary's "porn name" is "Gary Hung," while a student can be found mapped fantasizing about his hot teacher "giving legitimate algebra lesson for once." (171) It's better in these places than Africa. The map of Senegal shows where "major imports are peanuts and pretzels" may lead to unrest. Neighboring Gambia's migration pattern similarly causes challenges: "More citizens leave the shallow end as they get older." (104) Lesotho's history's pithy: the original inhabitants "are now dead." (064) The Democratic Rep. of the Congo does track the abyss where humor collapses into misery, and even the writers pale at what they find in the "Home to the world's most horrifying ventriloquist act." (069)

This clash of pampered Western sensibilities and Third World pain makes the atlas, in this section, less lighthearted and more Swiftian in its take on human frailty and geopolitical savagery. Niger's "only available form of birth control remains pregnancy." (097) Malaysia finds the spot where a "Muslim environmentalist" can be tracked "chaining wife to tree." (223) Vietnam hosts a "POW who still thinks U.S. lost the war." (219) But, there's a 20-square-mile "Impossible-to-Satirize Zone." Iraq does not have one yet, but you can plot their "Coalition Troops Welcome-Back Center." (123)

India's introduced as a place where "they fix slow Internet connections while standing waist-deep in sewage, reassure anxious customers that everything will be fine with their hard drive between cholera-induced fainting spells, and listen to iPod-related complaints while fending off giant football-sized rodents." The next page shows the place where you may meet a "librarian with dislocated hip filing Kama Sutra under fiction." (109) Out of such contrasts, indeed, humor and satire and insight into where Wests and Easts, Norths and Souths meet but fail to connect enriches this book, which rewards the browser with thought-provoking cleverness as well as insipid puns, sublime comedy, and lots more flag-related quips than you or I could have come up in a thousand all-nighters in a dorm room or campus watering hole.

Posted to Amazon today as "Where's My Free Globe?" The Onion: Our Dumb World Interactive Site

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