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Farewell to the Twentieth Century: A Compendium of the Absurd

by Pierre Berton

What I was going to do was make a humorous approach to Pierre Berton’s purportedly funny Farewell to the Twentieth Century: A Compendium of the Absurd. What I had in mind was a piece poking jocosely at the book’s general – what to call it? – imperfection, showing by clever example that this was a balloon that never had any air in it, and how sad is that? Light on the feet, quick to the point, winkish in a benevolent way that said nothing harsher than while somebody may find this to be a funny book, and while I could respect their choice in doing so in the spirit of pluralism, they should not try to contact me because we’d have nothing much to talk about: that’s what I was thinking as I made a way through Berton.

What I wasn’t banking on was defeat. I’m talking Montcalm here on the plains at Quebec: utter defeat (though without the loss of a continental toehold). I can’t remember the last time I got to the end of a book feeling so vanquished, so much like the book itself – hilarity-free. After Farewell to the Twentieth Century, I had no humour left in me, just an abdominal emptied-out feeling that woke me up wheezing in the night.

What Berton meant to do in the 50 or so short pieces herein was satirize us where we sit late in the century and show us in North America to be muddled, hopelessly foibled folk. There’s one about James Bond standing trial for sexual harassment. There’s one about the crazy old population explosion. There’s one – a real chestnut – about new regulations for the CRTC. As the book jacket helpfully points out, “Berton uses a number of literary devices to make his points: Fables, First-person reports, History as it might be written in the future, Found documents….” What it doesn’t report is that while Berton deals now and then in potentially funny properties, he always finds a way of flattening them to particle-board with a style that might best be classified as deadpan bulldozer.

What it might look like from where you sit is that I just don’t know funny. Listen, apart from this bout with Berton, I’ve never had a problem that way. Give me a page of Bill Richardson or Ian Frazier or Garrison Keillor or Flann O’Brien or anyone not trying to force the issue and I’ll curdle a cat laughing. There. That’s better: I’ve got some feeling back in my sense of humour. With any luck, I’ll be up to some light grinning this weekend.