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March 31, 2014 | by  | in Arts Books |
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JUMPING THE SARK: a review of Dating Westerners

Okay, so this is a dicey one. Dicey, because like many forms of satire, there’s always the chance that the thing will be taken literally and things will turn into a huge clusterfuck. Like when you find yourself reading YouTube comments minutes after the video finished. You realise you’ve just spent ages reading inane opinions on the various societal impacts of, like, Justin Bieber. These opinions have nothing to do with the subject of the video itself (which you know without double-checking) because you’ve been watching videos of funny-looking sloths. That’s an example of a clusterfuck, not satire, just to be sure we’re all on the same page.

And so, we have here this book: Dating Westerners: Tips for the New Rich of the Developing World.

It starts off as a textbook, a step-by-step guide on the way to date ‘Westerners’ (I’m only gonna do the quote marks once, guys). To be clear: the joke of the book is that some Westerners think in a certain, fallible way, and a good way to expose this thinking is to critique it comically from the opposing viewpoint of the ‘Easterner’. The nouveau riche Easterner, because this way, the author avoids having to discuss unfunny things like poverty. Throughout, we’re given little “English Expanders” which keep us updated on Western slang and general diction. The narrator seems male; he’s talking a lot about sleeping with women. To his credit, he does address homosexuality. I don’t really know much about sexuality, so I won’t talk about it more.

Illustrative of this book is a bit in it (my favourite bit) where the nouveau riche are taught to rescue a sex slave and thereby claim their Westerner. To wit: “get a gun and a mob. Enter the residence of the pimp and rescue the Eastern European in a violent struggle. This is the path of the renegade bounty hunter.” This hardly does it justice – you’ll have to read the thing. Or go to page 84 where, for having made it that far through this facetious little fucker of a book, you’ll be rewarded richly.

There’s a turning point somewhere along the line, where the narration – are textbooks narrated? – shifts into something less coherent. The jokes become less satirical and more outlandish. The more absurd stuff stops working as satire because of the way the thing’s set up. Think about South Park – they can get away with downright silliness because their characters are cartoons. This book is ostensibly an instruction manual, and while it is genuinely quite funny to point out Westerners’ misguided attitude that they’re being hunted down for marriage, a textbook (as opposed to a pamphlet or a feature article) seems like overkill. You start to think: “This guy might have overstretched himself by writing a joke into a whole 150-odd-page book.” (That said, if he had turned a 150-page book into one joke, we might have called it reductive.)

I think the most important question with satire is this: is what’s being satirised a real issue? Is it being done so that people will think about it in a constructive way, by engaging more easily with the things about it that are funny? Is it so that people rethink something they formerly thought of as incontrovertibly true? Or is it just for the sake of making fun of it? Because that’s just kind of mean. Look, if you’re not doing well with the rhetoricals, I’m not entirely sure this book is necessary.

There is definitely gold here, if you can be arsed panning. There’s a brief analysis (proper satire) of the Iraq conflict as this generation’s Vietnam. We can ignore the American-y stuff inherent in that, because it actually serves to distance the New Zealand reader from the action,  making things less confrontational and more digestible. The segment imagines a scene whereby an American soldier marries ‘you’ (the Easterner) and forecasts children, a house with a fence, dog, meatloaf, etc. It’s farcical, and it’s a good joke because it really does undermine a legitimately held Western thought.

This is the sort of thing you’d gladly read in a waiting room or on a boring date. This joke he’s making is useful. But it’s less clear whether the book is useful – satire for satire’s sake is a bit DANGER/DANGER/HIGH VOLTAGE.  Maybe the shark-jumping, his laborious development of a short sketch into a veritable tome (there is a lower threshold for tome status with satire), is all just part of the joke. If so, he has certainly placed himself in a clever rhetorical position as against the likes of us. I’m just sitting here in this shark’s mouth trying to make sense of it all.

Emma by Jane Austen

By Abi Smoker

Emma is wealthy. Emma is popular. Emma is beautiful. Emma is privileged. So far, Emma doesn’t sound like the typical Austen heroine. Emma gives the reader the chance to play detective – a rarity for a 19th-century novel. Emma herself keeps us the most engaged – from every planned picnic to every match made, Emma prides herself on knowing what’s best for everyone around. Yet she doesn’t realise the person who needs the most help is really herself. Austen’s famous irony and realist social commentary are brought alive in Mr Knightley, Emma’s only critic: “Vanity working on a weak head produces every sort of mischief.” This mischief is littered throughout, as Emma provokes and influences the lives around her. Emma is a refreshing novel featuring a protagonist who, in spite of yourself, you’ll grow to love.

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