The Onion’s Excellent ‘Atlas’

I love maps. They're useful. They're pretty. And quite often, they're free. I love all kinds of maps—old, new, Mercator, treasure, you name it. And after poring over the Onion's latest book-length parody, "Our Dumb World: Atlas of the Planet Earth," I've decided that I like funny maps best of all.

The Onion's map of the United Kingdom, for example, shows the burial site of Mother Goose, a literature mine, the world's grayest building and "the site where that tall guy who played the neighbor on 'The Jeffersons' was knighted." Ukraine's map includes the location of "glowing beet fields," a "headless-doll factory" and "Poltava, trowel capital of the world." But "Our Dumb World" is so much more than maps. Like any regular atlas, it profiles every country in the world and includes lots of facts, or "facts." Wales, the "land of consonant sorrow," is the birthplace of the "oldest, longest, least pronounceable language in the world. When spoken, it sounds like a beautiful song, but when written, it looks like the alphabet just vomited." Spain is notable for paella, "a fried dish consisting of rice, shrimp, pork, lobster, sardines, beef, squid, rope, Cornish game hens, more pork, goose, antlers, liver, baby back ribs, snails, lasagna, paper towels, wristwatches, vegetables and anything else within arm's reach that's not too heavy."

Fearless, which is to say, they don't care who they offend, the Onion's cartographers and geographers also boldly tackle more controversial countries. In the section devoted to Iraq, for example, you learn that "Iraq-U.S. relations became strained in 1963 when Iraq leader Saddam Hussein assassinated John F. Kennedy." The Iraq map shows such sites as "family burning effigy to stay warm," "U.S. soldiers arguing over whose turn it is to wear armor" and "father threatening to turn this car bomb right around if kids don't be quiet." The section on Iraqi history is titled, "From the Cradle to the Grave of Civilization." Equal opportunity offenders, this atlas's authors do not spare their own country ("Tennessee: Like 'Hee Haw' but a State"). And no joke is too silly or too lame to merit inclusion. Taste, obviously, was never an issue.

This is the best parody since the National Lampoon published its phony newspaper, "The Dacron Republican-Democrat," in 1978. Not every joke works, and I suppose you could blame the format for that: coming up with a string of surefire jokes about, say, Sudan is not just hard, it's darn near impossible. This, though, is where the Onion's atlas approaches genius. It is not merely parody, or certainly not toothless parody. Coupling rage with humor, it transcends its own silliness with Swiftian satire. Take the entry on the Democratic Republic of Congo, which "has endured decades of brutal civil war, in which rebel forces have adopted the gruesome practices of raping women with machetes, decapitating babies, and even … they, they just … with their teeth, they … Jesus f-----g Christ you don't want to know what goes on here." Five paragraphs later, the passage breaks down into completely unprintable obscenity. Funny? Hardly. Evenhanded? Not at all. Heartbreakingly accurate? To a fault.

The more I thought about it, the more I came to believe that the format is also the key to the book's success. The endlessness of the "facts" and "information" is precisely what wore me down, until I was helpless with laughter--and tears. A map, in its essence, is a picture, usually in two dimensions, of a place. In this case, the place is the world at large. The Onion's picture of it is skewed, buffoonish, raging, mocking and often ridiculous. It is not factual, fair or balanced. It just rings true.

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