I am no stranger to McSweeney’s publications. I’ve previously reviewed Mountain Man Dance Moves and Created In Darkness By Troubled Americans; I’ve also got a subscription to McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, visit the website regularly, and have read numerous authors from the McSweeney’s label. Needless to say, I have at least a passing familiarity with the content and style of McSweeney’s publications.
It’s no surprise that the humor here is of the hyperliterate sort. When John Hodgman1 writes the introduction, you can almost guarantee it’s going to be an assortment of esotery, self-reference, and occasional strangeness.
The book is funny, but like many McSweeney’s compilations, it’s a hit and miss enterprise. Most (almost all?) of the entries consist of the following formula.
- Take a respected literary idea or work (i.e. James Joyce)
- Put it in a context that is unaware of its importance (i.e. a creative writing class peer review of Ulysses)
That, literally, is the form that most of the book takes. It’s the sort of self-deprecating humor that English majors like. It simultaneously allows a writer (or a reader, for that matter) to skewer literary pretensions while acknowledging that the humor isn’t funny unless you’re pretentiously literate. It’s not a new idea: Created in Darkness… was very similar, without being tied to literature in particular. Ironically, none of the pieces requires a particular depth of knowledge on the work it skewers—if you didn’t understand what’s funny, say, Gregor Samsa as a high school sports coach, you’d need to do little beyond look the character up on Wikipedia to realize that the situation described is both absurd and not particularly funny.
I say this all somewhat harshly, but of course there were plenty of items in here that were genuinely funny (there always are). I am (somewhat) hyperliterate, and I admit that it makes me laugh. That is the core of it, I suppose: like just about anything McSweeney’s puts out, it’s unavoidably high-brow, and will appeal to you if you’re similarly high-brow.