Three Rivers Press, 2001, 174 pages, C$24.00 tpb, ISBN 0-609-80834-6
I have long been a steadfast admirer of The Onion, a devastatingly funny web humor magazine with the guts to say out loud what most of us can’t even conceive. That admiration became nothing short of worship on September 26, 2001, when The Onion was the first publication to face the 9-11-2001 tragedy with smart satire. (The “Holy F*cking Sh*t! Attack on America!” edition included such disturbing gems as “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule”, “American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie” and “Hijackers surprised To Find Selves in Hell”)
While Dispatches from the Tenth Circle doesn’t contain post-2000 material, it represents your most accessible option to reward the good staff of The Onion: rush out to your local bookstore and pick it up, along with their previous Our Dumb Century.
Inside, you’ll find 174 densely-packed pages of the best of The Onion over a period of a few years (roughly 1998-2000), a steady assortment of howlers and an unflinching look at today’s North-American society. There aren’t very many book out there that fully deserve their price tag, but if anything, Dispatches is a bargain even at cover cost.
I’d classify the Onion’s shtick to be divided in four rough categories. My general favorite is the “full-blown satire” mode, with such articles as “Doritos Celebrates One Millionth Ingredient”, “South Postpones Rising Again For Yet Another Year”, “Coca-Cola Introduces New 30-Liter Size” or “Video-Game Characters Denounce Randomly Placed Swinging Blades”
Then there are the “Ironic twist on common headlines”, such as “Supreme Court Overturns Car”, “Loved Ones Recall Local Man’s Cowardly Battle With Cancer”, “Fun Toy Banned Because Of Three Stupid Dead Kids” or “ACLU Defend Nazis’ Right To Burn Down ACLU Headquarters”
Some of the best laughs, of course, come from the “Slice of Daily Life” features, where stupid everyday stuff somehow headline material. Who can resist “Woman Who ‘Loves Brazil’ Has Only Seen Four Square Miles Of It”, “Twelve Customers Gunned Down in Convenience-Store Clerk’s Imagination” or “Graphic Designer’s Judgment Clouded By Desire To Use New Photoshop Plug-in”?
I’m not generally a fan of the “Other Features” of The Onion, but the “What Do You Think?” often features small gems. A few Point/Counterpoint features (“You The Man / No, You The Man!”, “My Computer Totally Hates Me! / God, Do I Hate That Bitch”) can be priceless.
Don’t skimp out on the details, either: Some of the best lines in Dispatch are hidden on the margins. Granted, the “STATshot” features are usually lame, but you can’t beat such one-liners as “Standard Deviation Not Enough For Perverted Statistician”, “Georgia Adds Swastika, Middle Finger To State Flag” and “Artist Starving For A Reason”.
Funny? Damn straight. Expect to laugh aloud, groan, roll your eyes and quote the book for weeks afterward.
It’s not stupid humor, mind you. If ever you happen to be familiar with one of the subjects lampooned in The Onion, you’ll find that these guys know their stuff; it’s very, very rare to catch them using an improper reference or to make an unintentional factual mistake.
Of course, the most seductive aspect of Dispatches is how clever it is underneath that veneer of hilarity. Pay attention, and you’ll acknowledge hidden truths about today’s world. The Onion‘s staff is not merely skilled at humor, but at social commentary. (A “vox populi” about middle-east violence includes “Maybe we should stop thinking of it as middle-eastern conflict and start thinking of it as middle-eastern culture.” Ouch.)
Needless to say, Dispatches from the Tenth Circle is highly recommended. It makes a great gift, and should provide you with enough quotable/photocopiable material for a while. Don’t you dare miss it, nor any of The Onion’s other collections. Needless to say, you can always go to http://www.theonion.com/ for your weekly fix.