Little Brown, 2007, 245 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 0-316-01842-2
Every year, just in time for Christmas gift-giving, the fine folks at the satirical weekly newspaper The Onion come out with a big, thick tome of goodness. Since 2000, that has taken the form of a yearly compilation of The Onion’s best pieces, but 1999 saw the publication of Our Dumb Century a faux-retrospective of The Onion’s front pages through the twentieth century that proved to be one of the finest humour book of the last hundred years. This year, The Onion skips the yearly anthology in favour of another massive all-original tome: they take on the entire world with Our Dumb World, a flawlessly-designed parody of an educational geography textbook.
Look at any randomly-chosen page, and you will see that every country is listed, along with their flag, representative photos, quick facts and an annotated map. But look closer, and you will realize that nearly every single line in this folio-sized 245-page book is a joke of some sort. Every single country in the world is put through the wringer, starting with the USA (14 pages of self-deprecation so acid, it feels as if foreigners wrote it) and ending with Greenland (“The Largest Land Mass on Earth”). The completeness of the coverage sometimes become a joke in its own right, with some countries grouped under the headings “A Bunch of God-Damned Islands”, “The Who Cares Islands”, “The Seriously Who Cares Islands” and “Three Countries You Thought Were in Africa”. The book is rarely funnier than when it reflects the image of a bunch of burnt-out comedy writers struggling to find anything to say about a country. (Hence the hilarious low-content take on Suriname: “Why do you insist on torturing yourself? You don’t have to read every page in this book. Who are you trying to impress?” [P.60])
But people looking for a fun and innocuous gift for the entire family may want to read the entire book beforehand and double-check that the recipients have a well-calibrated sense of humour: Despite the jokey front-cover promise of “Better-Veiled Xenophobia”, Our Dumb World often feels like a book-length collection of stereotypes. Self-aware, self-parodying stereotypes, of course, but still rough on whoever is expecting more sophisticated humour. In the grand Onion tradition, countries often become extended riffs on a single joke, which can either play well or become repetitive.
Some high concepts work better than others. Considering Andorra as “The Outlet Mall of Europe” is amusing, and looking at the Central African Republic as a generic no-name nation is a stroke of absurd genius. One of the biggest laughs of the entire book is the page about Jordan, which becomes a junior high-schooler’s love note to Queen Rania. (“Things about Queen Rania That are Beyond Belief: All of Them”) North Korea’s entry is “as if written by the North Korean Ministry of Information”, complete with type-written text glued in place.
Other riffs don’t feel as funny, and often skirt platitudes: Nigeria as a con haven. Bolivia/Columbia as drug factories. The Netherlands as a gigantic red light district. More nuanced portraits are generally more interesting, such as in countries like the United Kingdom or Canada –not coincidentally, countries where Our Dumb World can be purchased as-is. Other concepts work because they go against the grain: There’s a brilliant entry on Switzerland as being “Neutral… Too Neutral” with ominous overtones: “2007: The Swiss enter ‘Phase Three’ which in no way involves relaying secret orders to the Papal Swiss Guard on Aug. 1, 2009 at exactly 4:17:03.29 p.m.”)
And then there’s the stuff that’s just too dark to be funny. The writers at the Onion never forget that comedy feeds upon tragedy, but sometimes their good intentions run away from them. Most of the African entries are thinly balanced between rough humour and moral outrage, and the balance sometimes doesn’t hold: If you want to see the worst of it, turn to “Congo” and grit your teeth. But fans of The Onion already know what to expect.
Sometimes pitch-black, sometimes repetitive, sometime merely amusing rather than truly funny, Our Dumb World falters and doesn’t quite offer what we may expect from the idea of “The Onion doing the World”. But it’s big book, and even if you take out half the jokes as being ordinary, there’s still enough here to be worth a look, as long as you don’t object to The Onion’s trademark mixture of sometimes-offencive humour and deconstructive methodology. It’s nowhere near the excellence of Our Dumb Century, but it’s still a heck of a deal. Or one hell of a gift if you’re not careful about your recipients.