Today marks the beginning of the end of audiobooks. But don't cry -- there is still time to buy the last audiobook you will need before the coming global superpocalypse. You see, John Hodgman has released his final audiobook of complete world knowledge: That is All. It is full of jokes, celebrity cameos, mostly fake trivia, two references to Kale City Kale Chips, and fond recollections of Hodgman's now-burned speed zeppelin Hubris. Some of the narration occurs while Hodgman travels aboard the HMS Hodgmanic: the HMS stands for "Hodg Man's Ship," and under international law all vessels are rechristened Hodgmanic while he's aboard. That's just one of the little perks of being a Deranged Millionaire.
As I wrote in my review of Hodgman's That is All print edition (which you should probably read in order to understand the rest of this review), I prefer the audiobook editions of his work -- their production value is absurdly high, with more star voiceover cameos each time. But it's not really about the stars, or the jokes -- it's about the delivery of this performance among friends. Hodgman can narrate the hell out of an audiobook by himself. But when you add in appearances by Dick Cavett, Jon Hamm, Patton Oswalt (including an extended Oswalt-as-Nick-Nolte segment), Rachel Maddow, Paul Rudd, Jonathan Coulton, John Roderick, Sarah Vowell, Wyatt Cenac, and others -- you're getting your money's worth. If I had to pick a single audiobook to be stranded with on a desert island, That is All would be my choice -- with its tone veering from jokey to sweet, and ending on a beautiful high note, this audiobook is greater than its printed companion, because it is performed with friends. It is a rumination on collapse, where by "rumination" I mean "celebration," and by "collapse" I mean something that is much less an end than a beginning. For it is in these end times, these final days of 2012, that we may huddle close around our audiobook players, listen together, and have a laugh together. Just a quick tip before you start: you're going to want to get one of those waterproof covers for the player, because of the coming Blood Wave. I'm not sure what you're going to do about the Omega Pulse.
Gaslighting Paul Rudd
A theme of That is All in audiobook form is Hodgman's gleeful gaslighting of Paul Rudd. As we begin Hodgman's audiobook recording session, Rudd is in the next room narrating the same audiobook into an empty cereal box -- which he believes to be a form of microphone due to the aforementioned gaslighting. Hodgman, in his Deranged Millionaire character, repeatedly subjects Rudd's gullible Paul Rudd character (sorry, Paul) to hilarious psychological abuse. (The phrase "hilarious psychological abuse," at the time of this writing, turns up just one result on Google -- I am pleased to break that streak.) Hodgman returns to Rudd throughout the book, checking on his progress and slowly destroying Rudd's ability to distinguish reality from fiction. And it is awesome.
But don't be fooled by this. In the structure of That is All, the gaslighting of Paul Rudd is what magicians would call the Pledge -- the construction of a situation. It is fun on its own...but wait for the Turn and the Prestige to find the emotional core of this book. (And yes, I preemptively apologize for referring to The Prestige in the context of emotions.)
The Company Fridge
Something unexpected happened eleven months ago. I wrote a review of Hodgman's print edition of That is All, and eventually he noticed it. And his noticing was so sweet that we put it on the company fridge (yes, really). And then Hodgman appeared in our magazine, as our cover model, back in May. How cool is that? (Note: my most recent company fridge moment involved Neil Patrick Harris. Look, Neil. We all know you want more print work. You can even sing a song or something -- we'll just write it down. We have that technology.)
Writing About Talking and Singing
This is the part of the review where I play some clips from the audiobook. I don't have embeddable audio samples from the audiobook, and am probably prohibited by some sort of so-called "copyright law" from posting any. So instead, I guess you should watch a few videos from Hodgman's book tour, to get a flavor for what Hodgman is like live. The audiobook is like this except better, because Hodgman gets punchy in key spots (most notably the $999,999 Ideas segment) and frequently cracks up when joking with people he enjoys (c.f. the off-book material in the Rachel Maddow segment). Also, to be clear, the audiobook doesn't have these fancy moving pictures.
But how does this translate into an audiobook? Is the audiobook just a stage-style reading of the book? In short, no. The portions of the book that can be read as prose are often read as such. But extended portions (like that whole wine thing, and the following section in which Hodgman lists and describes various wines) are performed as discussions with friends. TV host Rachel Maddow drops by the audiobook studio (sorry, Hodgman's Panic Suite at the Chateau Marmont) to discuss types of wine and perform a wine tasting, and she's terrific. This technique transforms the list-driven portions of Hodgman's book into discussions. And, let's face it, discussions are more fun to listen to than lists -- especially in the car.
All the Little Ragnaroks That Happen Day By Day
I finished listening to the audiobook of That is All on my walk to work yesterday morning. And, listening to an audiobook, I cried a little. On a downtown Portland street. This is not something that happens to me -- I don't cry over audiobooks, certainly not in public. But when Hodgman concluded the book, after reading a powerful segment of the book that hints at his writing future, he sang a song with Cynthia Hopkins. And that song -- listen, that song is worth the price of admission. I was not prepared for it, and I am glad it happened, even though a hobo gave me a creepy look because of it.
Without giving too much away, you should know that That is All makes its crucial Turn when Hodgman stops writing as a familiar character, and begins writing as what we might guess is "himself," whatever that means for a writer who is so aware of his changing status and thus his changing voice. Taking on a new voice, one that is so unselfconscious, is surely a vulnerable place to be after so many years occupying jokey versions of himself -- we've heard Hodgman as a Former Professional Literary Agent, Resident Expert, Famous Minor Television Celebrity, and finally Deranged Millionaire (if you aren't familiar with these, read your history). Now we are hearing from the post-post Hodgman -- in other words, beyond the narrator-in-character writer there is a Hodgman voice we've been waiting to hear from again (I remember this voice from before his first book), and boy does it hit home. The book's brilliant conclusion, telling the story of the metafictional Anne Darling Egan, serves as a transition not just in the book, but in Hodgman's career -- it suggests what Hodgman will do next, after the end of this series of postmodern characters. I have no inside information, but listening to the long segment preceding the closing song, I couldn't help but think -- Hodgman has a novel in him.
What I conclude from That is All is that Hodgman's Deranged Millionaire character was gaslighting us the entire time. The truth, of course, is that Hodgman himself is a genuinely kind person who uses character as a way to express himself with a kind of wry, safe detachment. His recent Derangement is a fun side-note in the arc of his career, but careers aren't what matter. What matters is that we do what we love, that we are with the people we love, and that we do our work surrounded by friends -- that is what Hodgman has been doing by bringing in Paul Rudd and Jonathan Coulton and running gags that span dozens of hours of audio and years of work -- he's demonstrating to us what is most meaningful isn't the jokes, it's that those jokes are shared.
Hodgman's final audiobook of complete world knowledge ends with a surging, crying-in-the-street duet of "Resist the Tide" with Hopkins, just as his public readings have for years, and we are reminded that there is more to audiobooks than speech -- there is song; there is more to jokey books than jokes -- there is the sincerity of sharing; and there is more to the end than sadness -- there is hope. That is all.
Resist the Tide
Here at the end, let's look back at the beginning of that end -- from 11/1/11, when Hodgman and Hopkins performed "Resist the Tide" together at The Bell House, at the beginning of his That is All book tour. Smile about your mortality, and sing along, and know that it's okay to cry a little. I sure did.
Buying the Audiobook
The audiobook of That is All is not available on physical media -- it's digital only. It's about sixteen hours long including bonus features (like the audio-page-a-day calendar version of "Today in Ragnarok"), though the core book material is closer to eleven hours. Pick it up on iTunes, Amazon/Audible, or wherever fine audiobooks are sold digitally. You might also want to check out Hodgman's new boxed set of complete world knowledge if you like reading words rather than listening to them.
Blogger disclosure: I wasn't specially compensated for this review. I received an early version of the audiobook to listen to in my Portland End Times Bungalow.