bill bryson haunted me

While in the Frankfurt airport killing time, I decided I needed something to read while waiting in the airport and on the long flight back. During my vacation, I had already read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom, Judith Butler’s Excitable Speech, and Yves Simon’s Freedom and Community, as well as most of two issues of CCC and an issue of Hypatia. I was a bit tired of academic voices and theory (though I had enjoyed everything I read, except perhaps Simon, whose Thomistic perspective irked me and whose writing seemed dry), so I went to the bookstore and perused. The English section was limited, so I was left trying to decide between a collection of short stories by Margaret Atwood and The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson.

Bryson, a native Iowan who had moved to Britain, had been haunting me for years. If someone was knowledgeable of travel writing, they asked me about him. I have some acquaintances who have been shocked that I hadn’t read any of him. I was holding Atwood’s book and Bryson’s book, weighing the pros and cons of each. So I read Bryson first paragraph:

I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to. When you come from Des Moines you either accept the fact without question and settle down with a local girl named Bobbie and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever, or you spend your adolescence moaning at length about what a dump it is and how you can’t wait to get out, and then you settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever.

and decided I had to read this. Iowa-deprecating humour? I was excited. Maybe this book would be worth the astronomical 14 Euros (which, with the exchange rate, is about 1 million dollars).

I admit I was chuckling a lot during his first few pages, and even occasionally throughout the rest of his book. However, it wasn’t before too long that his book just began to annoy me. Every attempt at humor in his book, besides some self-deprecation or making fun of his family, is targeted shots at those who are different from him. Bryson’s book seems like a good example of how to enact the construction of “normal.” Overweight? Here’s a few jokes thrown at you. An accent that isn’t accepted as standard? He’ll mock you incessantly. Differently abled and in the same room as Bryson? You’re there for one purpose alone: to stare at because you’re a freak.

I haven’t quite finished the book, and I probably will (I only have about 50 pages left), but I have to say I’m greatly disappointed. The sour icing smothered the cake when he announced that, feeling incredibly visible and alone in a nearly all black Southern town, that he now knew what it was like to be black in South Dakota.

I beg your pardon, Mr. Bryson, but you have no idea what it’s like to be black anywhere. If anything, Bryson’s book is a chronicling of his extreme naiveté at his own unearned privilege.

It seems like the only group not worth mocking in his book are queer folk, and that’s probably because they are so invisible to him that they’re not even on the radar to mock. Jokes about other people can be amazingly funny, but a book constructed completely on mocking others, a book that seems to function mostly as a reinforcement of normalcy, fails to continue to be funny. It’s just tiring.

I should have picked up Atwood’s book instead.

This entry was posted in Race, Social Justice. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to bill bryson haunted me

  1. erin says:

    I just finished Bryson’s “Neither Here Nor There” about travels in Europe and wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. He’s celebrated as a travel writer and that astounds me when his take on writing about travel is to repeat the same belabored cycle again and again: arrive at station, find hotel, find restaurant, curiously or mockingly observe others, and go back to hotel. Chuckle-worthy a few times, but tiresome after awhile.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *