Review: Everything is Going to be Great: An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour by Rachel Shukert
I DIVED into Everything is Going to be Great -- Rachel Shukert's highly touted collection of travel essays --with some apprehension.
She has been called "the new David Sedaris", which was probably meant as praise, but I can't be the only one who found his travel essays chronically unfunny and the sitcom-ish escapades stretching the bounds of credibility.
For Shukert, I pictured a "madcap" series of capers via Paris, Vienna and Amsterdam, in which she makes fun of Europeans' inability to speak proper English while falling flat on her face, with knee-slapping results.
In fact, this suspicion turned out to be only partly well-founded. Yes, she partly invents an antic, schticky persona, which serves the purpose of making otherwise ho-hum anecdotes a little better (if less plausible). And she can also be deeply unfunny -- she finds the fact that Amsterdam has an Uranusstraat to be hilarious and was unaccountably allowed to go ahead with the weird idea to turn parts of this collection into a how-to guide, in which you are told, for instance, how to dress like her (who cares?).
However, when she's not sniggering at funny foreign place names or balancing metaphorical balls on her nose, she is a far superior writer to Sedaris. Amsterdam lies untouched "like the bedroom of a long-dead child", a German she encounters "radiates the scrubbed good sense of a young Angela Merkel" and says she felt she could not return home " ... for the same reason people couldn't leave a marriage that had died long ago: because all this couldn't have been for nothing".
The premise of the travel is that she, a recently graduated well-brought-up Jewish girl from Omaha, Nebraska, wins a non-speaking role in a touring piece of experimental theatre. Her parents agree to let her go because they once read the (clearly mad) director's name in The New York Times.
Shukert laughs up her sleeve every moment of rehearsals, but is deadly serious about her mission to "find herself" on the trip, and is willing to wear a hat, which looks to her like it's made of human faeces, on stage if that's what it takes. In interviews, she has said that she is influenced by Morrissey, and his immortal lines "I want to live and I want to love/I want to catch something that I might be ashamed of" could have been written for her.
And she does rack up a few notches on her bedpost. Her trip takes her through middle Europe and she has an affair with a kindly middle-aged man in Vienna, prompting a (to Irish eyes) weird dissertation on foreskins and what to do when "confronted" with one (don't panic, apparently). This is but one of many raunchy anecdotes in the book, but she mixes good insight in with the titillation.
Unlike Sedaris, or say Chelsea Handler (shudder), she doesn't need to make a forced gag out of everything and keeps a light touch with most of her jokes.
The Viennese sausages seem to her distinctly Freudian, whereas the chocolate penises she encounters in an Amsterdam market seem to eschew symbolism and stand for the straightforwardness of the Dutch. A mother feeds one to her child -- it is merely food.
Any American travelling in Europe in the past 10 years will be met with the inevitable questions about the Bush administration's foreign policies and perceived American triumphalism. One of the few guide-book bits that work are Shukert's witty suggestions as to how to parry these queries. The basic idea is that middle Europeans are in no position to give lessons in tolerance, least of all to an American Jew.
But then her religion is the springboard for much unfunny tastelessness. Thanks to comedienne Sarah Silverman, inverse Jew jokes are all the rage in America, and Shukert obliges with woeful zingers such as: "Say what you will about the horrors of the concentration camps, they might at least present some interesting networking opportunities."
In the end, and seemingly out of nowhere, she meets a nice Jewish guy and decides to settle down. After all of her travails, this feels like a bit of a non-sequitur; a cop-out soft landing at the end of the adventure. And yet, give her her due: despite being "histrionic and insufferably tiresome" (her words), she has managed to craft something that has its good moments, and if you are prepared to put up with a sprinkling of bad jokes, there are some wonderful anecdotes to savour.
And after reading the words "finding yourself", this still-traumatised reader was just relieved it wasn't Eat, Pray, Love.