As you have almost certainly heard by now, Dec. 21, 2012, marks the end of an age on a 5,000-year-old Mayan calendar, a fact that has prompted certain persons to herald it as the finale of various things, including the world. John Hodgman, humorist and minor television personality (appearing as an excessively authoritative guest on "The Daily Show" and as the PC in a now-retired series of advertisements for Apple computers), has been all over this story from the start. The final volume in his three-book series of "fake trivia," "That Is All," offers a handy guide to the apocalypse, or to use the term Hodgman prefers, Ragnarok.
Hodgman's very funny compendiums of bogus facts and advice would seem to present a particular challenge for audiobook adapters; the books are full of charts, tables and sidebars, along with amusing uses of typography and illustrations. A daily countdown of events culminating in the Dec. 21 climax of Ragnarok appears inside a little box on each printed page of "That Is All." The solution: Create a distinct recorded version, using the book as a rough guide. This, perhaps, explains why the audiobook was released this fall, a full year after the print edition. Without a doubt, the true Hodgmaniac will want to own both.
"That Is All" is less a narration than a semi-improvised, 16-hour radio show, hosted by Hodgman in the persona of a "deranged millionaire," speaking from his "personal panic suite at the Chateau Marmont" in Hollywood or his "security brownstone" in Brooklyn or while on the go in various impressive multi-terrain armored vehicles. Hodgman's longtime collaborator, singer-songwriter (or, as Hodgman would have it, "feral mountain man") Jonathan Coulton, makes a command appearance, but several other celebrated guests prove equally game for the role of straight man. They include Dick Cavett, Paul Rudd, John Roderick and, in an extended and sublimely revolting wine-tasting session, Rachel Maddow. (Hodgman suggests that Maddow pair one vintage with canned tuna by first eating the tuna and then pouring the wine into the can and drinking it out of that.) The voices of Stephen Fry, Sarah Vowell, Patton Oswalt, Jon Hamm, Brooke Shields and other notables appear more briefly.
Like the printed book, this is an indescribable miscellany of funny bits, from bogus factoids presented under the recurring label "Were you aware of it?" (as in, were you aware that the mascot of the Denver Broncos is a "cute furry version of the Pale Horse of Death, from the Book of Revelation") to lists of helpful tips (the well-dressed deranged millionaire should, when attending the TED conference, wear "Patrick McGoohan's white-piped blazer from 'The Prisoner' plus khakis and a cravat") to sometimes surprisingly affecting mini-narratives, such as an account of Stephen King roaming the ravaged planet reading bonus chapters of "The Stand" aloud to the remnants of humanity. King and H.P. Lovecraft are the guiding spirits of "That Is All," which is full of portentous references to "the Ancient Unspeakable Ones" and such horrors as "the thing known as Neddy Pale Fingers." Hodgman has an admirable knack for mimicking King's no-frills gothicism in a fashion that manages to be parodic and creepy at the same time.
The odd duck in this diverse pond is a chapter that offers the naturalistic story of how Hodgman, while working as a literary agent, attempted to sign up the reclusive author of a one-time bestseller at a writers' conference. (The literary agenting part is true, but the author is fictional.) Some readers of the print edition expressed puzzlement over this largely nonhumorous interlude, but in the audiobook version, Hodgman's own voice, and the sense that we are getting a glimpse of his true self at last, binds it more tightly into the rest of the book. It relates how he departed one career for another, as he is perhaps doing now, and will inspire breathless curiosity in Hodgmaniacs everywhere as we wonder what will happen next. Besides the end of the world, that is.
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