Q&A: John Hodgman's That Is All takes a lighthearted look at apocalypse
“The reality is I do so many different things, Brian. I can’t expect you to remember every single one. That’s why I’m going to tell you everything that I’ve ever done. I was born in 1971 and grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts…”
So began the Straight’s recent interview with renowned humorist John Hodgman, conducted by phone as he travelled between North Carolina book-tour stops in a car he claimed was being driven by actor Edward James Olmos. (This claim, revealed immediately to be false, was intended to thrill Vancouverites on the grounds that Olmos once starred in the locally shot TV series Battlestar Galactica.)
A full 16 minutes later, Hodgman wrapped up the introductory chronology of his life and declared himself ready for follow-up questions.
There was much to discuss, given his strange, varied CV: literary agent, magazine writer and advice columnist, regular correspondent on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, and occasional actor in commercials, films, and TV shows (including, yes, Battlestar Galactica).
But the reason for this conversation was Hodgman’s latest book, That Is All, the final volume in his trilogy of bizarre fake trivia. Its predecessors, The Areas of My Expertise and More Information Than You Require, covered everything from hobo lore to hermit-crab racing, all in what the author calls “the voice of deranged authority”. That Is All, however, is packed with hilarious, wholly made-up factoids about the looming apocalypse—or more specifically, as he put it to the Straight, the things that 40-year-old men like him “really think about: the collapse of civilization and the end of human history, and also wine, and also sports.”
Georgia Straight: In That Is All, you’re not just talking about apocalypse and collapse, but rather what you call “superpocalypse” and “ultracollapse”. What’s the distinction?
John Hodgman: Well, traditional apocalypse narratives deal with the unfortunately all-too-likely scenarios of catastrophic war or catastrophic environmental change. They tend to overlook things like the Bloodwave, which is a giant tsunami of blood, which will consume much of the central part of the North American continent; the Omega Pulse, which is the giant electromagnetic pulse that wipes out every hard drive and every computer chip on the planet, except for a few outliers; the Dogstorm, the day when all dogs in North America abandon their owners to join together in a hundreds-of-miles-wide dog pack that ravages most of the American South; or, for that matter, the return of the 700 Ancient and Unspeakable Gods.
GS: That Is All is the final part of a continuously paginated trilogy, with the full set offering what you claim to be “complete world knowledge”. So now we have a beginning, a middle, and an end, with the end being apocalypse. Does that make your only competition something like, say, the Bible?
JH: Well, I don’t see myself in competition with the Bible. That book has got such a huge cultural and historical head start that they can afford to give it away in hotel rooms. My book is only available in the hotel rooms of the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles. I’m still brokering a deal with the Marriott and other hotel chains.
GS: Would that mean both works in hotel dresser drawers, or just yours?
JH: That’s actually what we’re trying to negotiate right now. Personally, I’m looking for exclusive drawer access, but a lot of these chains are holding out because they feel that a lot of their customers still follow the Judao-Christian traditions of this country. They’re not ready to embrace the 700 Ancient and Unspeakable Gods quite yet.
GS: Maybe because embracing them would be a lot more work?
JH: Well, the reason, I think, that the Bible is more popular than my book—which I certainly saw coming—is that the Bible, apart from being a work of great poetry and philosophical thought and a tremendous culinary guide to the Middle East of 2,000 years ago, constructed a story in which humans mattered, in which they were chosen by God to carry his word forward and to live a certain way….The underlying message of the Judao-Christian world-view is that you matter to creation, whereas science, sadly, suggests that we as individuals matter very little to creation—that there is no great story that is being told by our existence on this planet, other than we happen to exist on it. And even if we set science aside, the 700 Ancient and Unspeakable Gods will just crush you with their palms, for we are but ants to them, in the same way that we’re less than meaningless, less than ants, to the cosmos. Which is the feel-good message of my book.
GS: Is it taxing to sustain this bird’s-eye view of humanity? Is the air thin up there?
JH: Yeah, but it’s taxing for everybody.…Any time we stray too far into the cosmic view of things, we then try to bring it back down to “I’m just a guy driving in a car, having the time of my life, with Edward James Olmos by my side. It doesn’t get much better than this.” And you know what, Brian from Vancouver? It doesn’t get much better than this [laughs]. It is that experience that I am having with Edward James Olmos which for me in this moment gives my life pleasure and meaning and substance, and defines the whole cosmos, as far as I’m concerned.
GS: So we have to focus on living on a human scale?
JH: Yeah. That’s the thing. When you appreciate on the cosmic scale how little humanity really matters, you are reminded how important it is to make sure that you not only live on a human scale but you live meaningfully on a human scale. Take that to the people of Vancouver and change some lives.
GS: In That Is All, you discuss social Darwinism and explain how the super-rich—or Homo Baronensis, as you call them—are genetically superior to the rest of us. Has the Occupy movement simply failed to grasp that fact?
JH: I think that Occupy Wall Street in particular is there by the grace of Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York. What they don’t appreciate is that he could come down there at any time and transform them all into toads—he has that mutant power. And the other mutant power of Homo Baronensis, of the great wealthy people in the world, is that if you are very, very mean to them and call them names and ask them to pay taxes and things, they can teleport away from here at any moment. They will disappear, and then you will be sad.
GS: And of course they’ll take all the jobs with them, right?
JH: They’ll take all the jobs—they’ll teleport those jobs away. Next question.
GS: What will you do if the ancient Mayans turn out to have been wrong and all is well on morning of December 22, 2012?
JH: If the world does not split apart on December 21st, 2012, I will look kinda dumb. But I will secretly be very happy.