Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Microcosm/Macrocosm Technique

While reading Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself, I laughed (or perhaps guffawed) countless times. Bill Bryson’s humor is light and smart. Bryson’s humor style, though this is not the clinical term, seems to fall under the category of Liberal White Upper/Middle Class Male (often a dad). Let’s try to break down how this is achieved.

Sometimes he points out seemingly silly problems with America, little absurdities like the more than 400,000 injuries that occur yearly as a result of pillows, beds and mattresses. Yet he retains Mark Twain’s advice for storytelling, and keeps the manner serious, albeit light. Despite the seriousness of purpose, we laugh, because of the content that he chose. But do stories like this have an argument other than entertaining the reader (not to condemn entertainment, pure entertainment can be rewarding as well)? Bryson goes on, in that section, to say:

“My point in raising this is not to suggest that we are somehow more inept than the rest of the world when it comes to lying down for the night (though clearly there are thousands of us who could do with additional practice), but rather to observe that there is scarcely a statistic to do with this vast and scattered nation that doesn’t in some way give one pause” (Bryson 17).

Here, I think we do receive valid and thought-provoking insight. We should note that Bryson’s “type” or style of humor recognizes larger issues by poking fun at the microcosm. This keeps the reading material light, funny, and entertaining, but sets itself up to be extended to larger issues.

The chapter entitled, “Design Flaws,” Bryson uses the microcosm/macrocosm technique in order to address priorities of this country. In this section, he talks about his son’s sneakers. After the obligatory “Dad Joke” in which he mentions the sheer abundance of running shoes that his son owns (“at a conservative estimate, sixty-one hundred pairs”), Bryson discusses the efficiency of design (Bryson 39). He describes a laughably specific and scientific design description for the sneakers, and remarks that “Alan Shepard went into space with less science at his disposal than that,” and wonders why he cannot get a computer keyboard that functions efficiently, but his son has sneakers that are perhaps overly thought-out in the design department. All of this left me, the reader, wondering about our country’s priorities.

One last example of Bryson’s writing appears in the section on “Drug Culture.” He points out that a British commercial for a cold relief capsule promises only “that it might make you feel a little better,” but that the commercial for the same product in America, “would guarantee total, instantaneous relief” (Bryson 11). This is brilliantly indicative of the difference between British and American culture, and immediately characterizes Americans as a group of entitled, instant-gratification-obsessed individuals, which, well, in the most general sense, can we argue with?

Throughout the novel we see Bryson use the funny microcosm to call attention to the more seriously twisted macrocosm, and this functions quite nicely with Twain’s advice for how to tell a story. The seriousness of purpose used to discuss such goofy issues (the microcosms) makes these smaller issues funnier, but allows us to use that absurdity, that juxtaposition between the funny and the serious, to further explore until we arrive at the macrocosm. This sort of humor, while I’m not convinced it invites change, at its very least invites awareness to the absurdities that we live out every day.

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