grinching on bill bryson

December 27th, 2011

Some time ago I was reminded that I have a copy of a Bill Bryson book on my shelf waiting to be read. I’d never read any of Bill Bryson’s books before. Bill Bryson. Dude’s supposed to be hilariously funny. That’s what everyone tells me. How is it that I could be leaving this book unread.

So I took it down off the shelf and started reading. Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson. Worth neither buying nor reading. Imagine all the trees that could still be alive today if this book had never been published, or at least that could have been put to better use.

Chapter 1 was just about a deal breaker, but no, I soldiered on, prepared to believe that it might get better. This is, after all, the famous Bill Bryson, who’s supposed to be hillariously funny. It got less bad. Chapter 1 is written from the point of view of someone who suspended his emotional development at a particularly difficult early adolescence and has managed to bend double, insert his head somewhere unfortunate, then collapsed in on himself so that he is viewing the world from the inside of his own pancreas. It is one long and incredibly self-absorbed whinge about how terribly insufferable the bus ride from Oslo, up through Sweden, then back into Norway to Hammerfest is. And yet, not one of the details of the journey leapt out at me to scream “See what an arduous journey I had!” No, instead the tone was far more suggestive of “This is why my wife held a gun to my head until I bought a one-way ticket to Hammerfest and told me to never come back.”

In subsequent chapters he does actually manage to extract himself from his own innards and begin to actually engage with the real world around him, but only just barely, and he never strays too far from yet another Holden Caulfield-esque whinge (and Catcher in the Rye, lest anybody get the wrong idea, is another book whose publication was a crime against trees). I could sum the book up in one sentence: Europe is rubbish, the service is crap, and I hate everything. Whenever Bryson claims to have liked anything or anyone, I simply can’t bring myself to believe him, so overwhelming and constant is the flood of negativity. What I can believe, based on what’s in this book, is that Bryson may well be one of those people who attracts crap service through his own bad attitude. Really, Bill, why would anyone be nice to you when you so clearly hold them personally and their entire country in such utter contempt?

Another thing that struck me about this book was Bryson’s apparent inability to paint any clear pictures in my mind. It was a strange experience reading of his travels through Europe unable to see what it was Bryson was seeing. Surely the whole point of travel writing is to describe one’s experiences in strange and exotic places? Shouldn’t a travel writer therefore be able to paint in the readers’ minds vivid pictures of the places and people they’re meeting? Why is it that reading this book is like trying to see Europe through Linfen smog on a dark winter’s night without my glasses on?

Well, yes, it does have a few laugh out loud moments, but I suspect more despite than because of Bryson’s famed sense of humour. Judging by this book, I can only conclude that Bryson actually does not have a sense of humour, but a vague idea that humour is something akin to the kind of wordplay one finds in Blackadder. He tries hard, and does sometimes succeed, but mostly it just comes across as trying hard.

Unlike Ulysses, Neither Here Nor There is not large enough to use as a doorstop should you accidentally find yourself in possession of a copy. I’m going to put my copy in the box of unwanted books in the foreign teachers’ office on the off chance a current or future colleague actually likes this kind of writing. But the whole way through the book I was thinking, if I wanted an expat whinge session I could pop up to Sanlitun to one of those bars whose clientele is dominated by wankers who never bother to learn a word of the local language because they’re so convinced of their own superiority. But I find it hard to think of anything more boring. I really would rather watch paint dry. So should you come across a copy of Neither Here Nor There, don’t waste your time. Really, just say no.

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