In We Learn Nothing, writer and political cartoonist Tim Kreider delivers a humourous book of clear-sighted anecdotes and cartoons about, in his own words, “dark, hilarious universal truth[s].” This is a tall order to fill, but Kreider is indeed able to make stories taken from his own life apply to the world at large. Appended to each essay is a cartoon in which Kreider caricatures himself with the same brutal honesty with which he is known for rendering former President George W. Bush. The best of these is the meta-cartoon in which Kreider chronicles the story of the story about the time he was stabbed in the neck. The cartoons are funny and enjoyable, but few besides “The Stabbing Story” truly serve to enhance the narrative. They do, however, give a comical physical presence to the people Kreider has been describing. He is a good cartoonist, but he may just be a better writer.
Kreider is an amusing and pointed cultural observer who calls things as he sees them. We all wish we could be this matter of fact about the ups and downs of life and our own personal failings and political biases. Known for his unabashedly anti-Bush cartoons, Kreider delivers a surprisingly level headed essay about the left/right divide in American politics, which is perhaps the highlight of the book (“When They’re Not Assholes”). Kreider attends a Tea Party rally after a period of purging himself of politics following the end of his job as a political cartoonist and comes face to face with a former student who is now one of the organizers of the rally. His illusion of impartially is further smashed when a Tea Partier calls him a “Moby”, which turns out to mean Tea Party Poseur.
Although Kreider is at his best on home ground, discussing political issues, he is also an astute observer of the social “politics” of personal interactions. His essays cover the loss of three friends—one dies, one stops calling him back, and the other he defriends due to an obsession with peak oil—the subtle changes in his relationship with his friend, novelist Jenny Boylan, after she undergoes gender reassignment, and the forging of new relationships with two half sisters he didn’t know he had. These stories challenge our assumptions about mental illness, gender and what it means to be family.
Kreider never seems to be trying too hard, and yet is funny even when the situation shouldn’t be humourous at all. If you enjoy cynical essays in the tradition of David Rakoff, We Learn Nothing is an excellent pick.
Already read and enjoyed We Learn Nothing? I recommend Don’t Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoff.