New McSweeney's Joke Book Not So Funny

By the editors of McSweeney's

Vintage (April), $12.95

Our friends on Valencia Street deliver us an enthusiastically nerdy collection of literary humor, a work by and for those of us who, as the introduction has it, are "largely preoccupied by the fact that, other than allowing us to make fun of them, our English degrees were pretty useless." Amen. But this collection is kind of useless too, because unlike the previous McSweeney's humor collection, Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans, it isn't very funny. Many pieces have one-liner premises that tire immediately ("Lady Macbeth on Ambien," "Dateline: To Catch a Predator: Humbert Humbert"), and too many are academic spoofs — the only thing more boring than a college-writing workshop is reading a story that makes fun of a college writing workshop. Most egregiously, there is only one (one!) Lord of the Rings piece, which isn't funny at all. There are definitely chuckles to be had, particularly in the pieces that don't follow the paint-by-numbers "iconic writer/character + modern context + slang" format. Much more subtle and enjoyable are the pieces that slyly reflect on the art and meaning of their sources, such as Alex St.-Andrews' simple and hilarious "Social Security Denies Gregor Samsa's Disability Claim," wherein literature's most pitiable embodiment of existential alienation is reduced to a line on a welfare application: "We received no medical records related to your alleged condition(s) of I AM A GIANT COCKROACH, DEPRESSION, BACK PAIN." There is one not-funny-at-all, but very lovely poem, "Pound-Eliot Sestina," by Alfred Corn, and a grad-school update on an old playground rhyme that I cannot resist quoting: "When you're citing Marcel Proust/and you feel that doo-doo juice:/Diarrhea. Diarrhea."

 
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