The Story Of This Story: “That Is All”


Welcome to HEAVEmedia’s swap week! Our columnists have taken over each other’s articles all week long. Today – Mike Haverty, of In Case You Missed It, takes over Marissa Morales’ The Story Of This Story to talk about John Hodgman and Ragnarok.

Last November, I stood on the foyer stairs in Piper’s Alley (home to the famed Second City Theatre), reading about the end of all things. I closed the book, and stared at the cover’s blackness obscured by large white lettering: THAT IS ALL. And this is it, really. After six years and three books, John Hodgman’s Complete World Knowledge trilogy has ended. With it, an entire universe of molemen, furry lobsters and video falconry will be no more by December 21, 2012.

Hodgman’s books served as the modern humor nerd’s Harry Potter. No, the series isn’t as spiritually uplifting and reaffirming as self-efficacy and maturity through the metaphor of wizardry, but Hodgman traffics in other forms of whimsy. His is a secret world, a world where several U.S. presidents had hooks for hands and Teddy Roosevelt “SHAT OUT PENNSYLVANNIA.” His works are escapism in the purest sense–they’re fiction told as fact in the briefest statements, an avalanche of wrong that buries all the boring everyday truths.

That is All is the last book in the Complete World Knowledge (CWK) trilogy and the culmination of Hodgman’s almanac form. The first book, Areas of My Expertise, defined the almanac form seen throughout the later entries: short essays, lists, graphs, and sub-sections of fun facts. Influenced by the brevity and non-linear composition of Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader, CWK is a perversion of “fun fact trivia books” that littered the bathrooms, thrift stores and long car rides of nerdy childhoods like my own. Practical facts cannot be found, but the fake facts make for a more compelling narrative. You can learn how to pull-off a three card monty con (find a mark and pay 20 people to be audience plants/furniture) and study the history of our first hobo president, all within the same binding. Hodgman’s second entry into CWK, More Information Than You Require, added a page-a-day calendar (each page has a fun fact, so simply rip out pages as the days go by) and even more sub-sections, tables and graphs. While it’s still a very funny and wholly remarkable text, More‘s “information overload” was daunting and at worst, SOMETIMES UNINTERESTING.

Unlike the past entries, That is All is propelled by a passive narrative about the impending Ragnarok. Hodgman’s preface sets a dire tone: “COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE cannot be complete. That is, SO LONG THAT THERE IS A WORLD. But luckily, this is not going to be a problem for much longer.” All creates an urgency the other almanacs lacked, and this urgency is maintained even when reading out of order. One way Hodgman creates motion is by removing the page-a-day calendar from More and replacing it with day-by-day events leading up to Ragnarok. From November 1, 2011 to December 21, 2012 (or publishing date to the Mayan New Year), every page delivers one news item that irrevocably brings us closer to our world splitting in two.

There is much to love about All, but it could not stand on its own as a book. Best exemplified by the continuous pagination between all three books (All starts on page 607), the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The book is built for callbacks and references to other sections, uniting an entire universe of wonder before it is split in half by the reemergence of the Century Toad (minor spoilers). Hodgman’s urgency of the end mirrors his own career in some sense. He became surprisingly famous after appearing on The Daily Show to promote Areas, became a PC for the Apple commercials and has continuously appeared in movies and television shows. He doesn’t think this can last, and he is soaking up all the experience he can in his new life as a “deranged billionaire” (his term). All stardom is finite, and That Is All was written in the voice of one man unsure if his current life and world will end. Then again, the Century Toad cracked the earth millions of years ago, and that’s how we got into this mess IN THE FIRST PLACE.