More random reviews, taken from my 1990s monthly books column in Alternative Press, Ill-Literature.
Our Dumb Century – by the editors of The Onion (1999)
As the end of the year/decade/century/millennium/world slithers ever closer, publishers the western world over are gearing up to remind us of the mightiest milestones in the tumultuous times we are leaving behind. The top 1,000 Books and Albums of the age have already been tabulated; the top 1,000 Other Things are not far behind. Even this column is currently carefully selecting what will, come December, be acclaimed as the ultimate guide to the greatest rock reads of the past thousand-or-so years, beginning with the world famous Lindisfarne Gospels, an eighth century attempt to foretell the career of an English ‘70s folk rock group.
Of all these undeniably heartfelt and valuable contributions to the storehouse of human knowledge, however, few make a greater dent upon our creative psyche than a book which, with almost unbecoming modesty, restricts its spotlight to simply the last 100 years – a book whose very title, Our Dumb Century (Three Rivers Press, $15) somehow zaps a cultural zeitgeist which might otherwise have escaped scot free. For it has been a dumb century, and as its last eight months dumb things down even further, the marvel is not that Y2K is set to blast us all back into the stone age. The marvel is that mankind was actually able to come up with something which was even susceptible to Y2K. That’s how dumb things are.
In the form of 160 newspaper front pages, Our Dumb Century reflects upon every major headline-making event of the past 99 years, from the San Francisco Earthquake to the Gulf War, from the Hindenburg to the Holocaust, from the moon landing to the muppets (and readers of the satirical magazine The Onion will know what’s coming next)… then makes up headlines around them.
The front page is, after all, the most accurate barometer of the nation’s mood and emotions at any given point in time. But what if it was written after the fact, utilizing all the cultural, conspiratorial and utterly culpable information which we have at our disposal today?
Maybe President Kennedy really was slain by the CIA, the Mafia, Castro, LBJ, the Teamsters and the Freemasons, a total of 43 lone gunmen firing 129 shots in an assassination which lasted from 12.30 until 12.43pm.
Perhaps Martin Luther King, just months earlier, really did stand up in front of 250,000 people and tell them, “I had a really weird dream last night.”
And, given the modern media’s ability to take a simple heartwrenching human interest story, then club us all to death with the pathos, maybe there really were a group of doe-eyed orphans, a precious little kitten and several bunnies on board the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle. Enough of them seem to have fled Kosovo in April, after all.
Much of the book’s humor is wretched, irreverent, cruel. Statistically, this century saw man deliberately inflict more pain and death upon his fellow man than in all past centuries put together, and certain constitutions will doubtless be irrevocably offended by some of the subjects singled out for fun – “German Jews concerned about Hitler’s ‘Kill All Jews’ proposal,” reads a 1937 leader; “A-Bomb may have awakened giant radioactive monsters, experts say,” we learn 12 years later. And who, recalling the national humiliation of just a few months ago, can truly find humor in a report which claims Kenneth Starr deliberately taunted President Clinton with a playground chant which began “Bill and Monica sitting in a tree….”? As if the leader of the free world hadn’t suffered enough already!
Maybe humor is not Our Dumb Century’s goal, however. Maybe the real intention is to show us just how low our standards have slipped, culturally, morally and in terms of simple objectivity. Forget hard news, give us hard soundbytes. Forget events, give us angles. And fuck famine, it’s sweeps week!
Maybe that is where Our Dumb Century is actually heading, and if so, that’s nice. But it doesn’t show, and it certainly doesn’t matter. Because not only is this one of the most pants-wettingly gut-busting books you’ll read this year, it’s also one of the funniest of… ooh, the last decade? The
last century? The last millennium? Maybe someone can do a list, and then tell us.
The Undertaking: Life Studies From The Dismal Trade
By Thomas Lynch
“Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople” is not the kind of line one normally hears at a party: “this is Ted, he’s an architect; this is Kris, he’s a philanderer; oh, and this is Thomas, and he’s a…” What do you call somebody who buries a couple hundred of his townspeople every year anyway? A “mortician”? No, too scientific. A “funeral director”? Too self-important. When Thomas Lynch looks in the mirror, like his father before him, he sees an undertaker – “someone who stood with the living confronted with death and pledged to do whatever could be done about it.”
The Undertaking: Life Studies From The Dismal Trade (Norton, $23.95) is one of those books which comes along way too infrequently, and then astonishes everyone into writing umpteen knock-offs. Last year, it was map-making and the search for longitude which enthralled the reading public; next year, it will be something equally preposterous. But this year, it’s the funeral trade, and soon the bookstores will be filled with dismal, black-wrapped tomes telling dark tales of pathos at the moment of supreme surrender: the redneck who wanted to be scattered from a hot-air balloon; the cuckolded husband who cut his throat with an electric knife; and the two brothers who laid out their own father’s body, because that is what he would have wanted. Now there’s an undertaking to think about.
Lynch is not only an undertaker, of course: they never are. Rather, he combines his profession with a sideline in poetry, and it is this – for better or, occasionally, worse – which gives The Undertaking its own distinctive rhythm. He composes while his clients decompose, and he admits that when he was first getting published, it was his profession, not his poems, which received the biggest headlines: comparisons with Robert Graves, no doubt, and his best work being buried in oversized anthologies.
Such an overworked analogy works to Lynch’s advantage, however, in as much as it does enable him to step outside of the parlor occasionally, to discuss his adventures in that other world, and perhaps contrast the outlooks he finds there. Undertakers, for instance, gather once a year in a sunny foreign clime, to forget about their daily grind, and revel in the sun. Poets, on the other hand (or at least the ones Lynch seems to hang with), seem to do the precise opposite.
We learn of one, a practicing hypochondriac, who left sputum samples at the local hospital, with instructions to test for Ebola (he also claims to be the only known survivor of Mad Cow Disease); another, who combined good poetry with violent criticism, then gets drunk with his journalistic victims; and a third who waltzed into print with an innuendo-laden ode to an artichoke.
Such diversions distract, but only momentarily; of all the artistic callings, poets appear particularly prone not only to morbid thoughts, but also to morbid deeds, a consequence, no doubt, of having to make the end of every sentence rhyme. (Ah, so that’s why they invented blank verse: to let happy people have a crack at it.) An undertaking poet, however, is at a distinct advantage, in that he not only has a good idea of what will happen to him if he should follow the party line, he also knows how his loved ones will react when he’s gone – the undertaker’s job, Lynch points out on innumerable occasions, is not so much about giving the deceased a good send-off, but making the living believe they have done so.
Dead, after all, is dead, and it doesn’t matter how you go, once you’re gone, you’re out of the loop. No more haircuts, no more gas bills, no more pocket money for your kids. And, of course, no more wondering when “it” will happen, because “it” already has. And that’s quite an undertaking in itself.