A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

Vacationland: Review

The following post was taken from my Goodreads review:

In the early written features and other marketing surrounding Vacationland, John Hodgman has attempted to frame this book as a break from his previous three books. Those, if you don’t remember, constituted a “complete compendium of factual knowledge” that was entirely composed of made-up facts. And it’s true that the essays in this book are about Hodgman’s real life, and that he doesn’t seem to have made up more than the occasional name of someone he wishes to keep anonymous.

But in many ways, Vacationland is a natural progression from the third and final fake-fact-book, That Is All. In that book, Hodgman started grappling with the visible fact of his own success, started to set aside the mask of his fictional persona, or at least to meld his fictional persona in ways that were very easy to read as responses to the changes in his own life.

The “John Hodgman” of the first book had been funny for his presumption—a fairly typical well-educated white male declaring himself an expert in everything, despite a total lack of credentials or experience—a character most people could recognize in our own lives, some of us in the mirror. The humor lay in the gap between the utter nonsense he was writing and the authoritative, sober tone with which he wrote it. But by the time he got to the third book, the mask had begun to slip, partly by necessity: Hodgman had based his comic persona on a parody of the privileged white male who assumes his own usefulness and expertise without the burden of any evidence, and the world had rewarded him with riches and fame, rather than millions of people who actually WERE useful and expert.

It created an interesting tension that Hodgman explored at length in That Is All: was the world rewarding him for his writing and sense of humor, things for which he did possess a degree of expertise? Or did it just see another well-dressed white guy who seemed pretty confident and say, “Hey, you! Front of the line, pronto!” The lines between parody and reality seemed to blur, and in order to confront that, Hodgman seemed to put more of his real life into the final of his fake-fact-books.

With Vacationland, the progression has continued, and now Hodgman is simply writing about himself. This changes to the experience of reading him: the humor is gentle rather than absurd, self-effacing rather than self-aggrandizing, the circumstances funny not because they are outrageous, but because of the way Hodgman’s insecurities are capable of escalating the internal stakes of the most mundane scenarios. So instead of flights of bizarre fancy, we get a lot of stories about how Hodgman went to a place, and encountered something off-putting, but was too naturally reticent/afraid of criticism to point it out, and eventually the situation resolves itself. Hodgman frequently lampshades his own incapacity and the relative ease of his life with humorous self-effacement.

Really, if there’s one criticism I have about the essays in the book, it’s that Hodgman tends a little too much toward stasis. That sounds like I’m criticizing his life choices more than his book (and reviewing a memoir, it’s hard not to do both), but what I mean is that his writing is too quick to hedge, his observations too quick to undercut themselves with an apology for some incorrect assumption he might possibly be making. Hodgman is highly conscious of his own white, male, cis, hetero, able-bodied privilege, and frequently refers to it in the course of his storytelling, which is an admirably considerate way to frame his experiences. But it occasionally comes off as paralysis, an unwillingness to make an unalloyed positive statement without bracing it with a harness of qualifying statements, as though his privilege were an unfelt appendage that might go crashing into something if he moves too purposefully in one direction.

Beyond this, the frustrations Hodgman’s book inspires in the reader are generally the type of frustrations that good nonfiction writers seek to cultivate in their readers. We want to learn more about Hodgman, read about his early relationship with his wife, their attempts to live in New York on incredibly small salaries, his experiences in the death-throes of the traditional publishing industry, and about a hundred other things that he would no doubt be horrified to learn people want to know about him. It’s too late, John! You’ve given us a taste of your life, and now, we want the whole thing!

But if you can content yourself with a collection of vacation stories, told with wit and feeling, and a thorough understanding of how your approach to life changes as you get older, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Well, I probably could. “You should read this, it is funny and well-written and insightful!” should be enough. But you know what I mean.

Interested in reading this? I’m an Amazon Affiliate, meaning that I link products from Amazon, and if anyone clicks those links to buy the product, they pay me a commission. If you’re interested in purchasing Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, just follow the link below:

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches

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This entry was posted on 17 September 2019 by in Elegant Extracts and tagged , , .
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