Does a Bear Sh*t in the Woods? Answers to Rhetorical Questions. By Caroline Taggart. Plume. $13.
In the long-ago heyday of Mad magazine, artist and writer Al Jaffee (who is now 90 and still drawing for Mad) produced a recurring feature called “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.” He offered a series of drawings of mundane situations – for example, a car that has obviously just smashed into something, with crumpled front end and angry-looking driver. Then he put a typical question in the mouth of someone nearby, such as a passerby: “Have an accident?” And he offered several suggested responses, such as, “No thanks. I just had one.”
Caroline Taggart’s book is essentially an updated, prose-intensive version of Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions, except that the answers are not nearly as much fun as the ones in Mad and the drawings aren’t nearly as good. For example, “Do one-legged ducks swim in circles?” The answer – accompanied by a picture of a duck with one leg and a toy shovel replacing the other – is, “Probably not, actually. A duck with one leg would simply use its weight to compensate for any loss of balance, and might well employ its good leg as a sort of fin, allowing it to swim perfectly happily in straight lines. But have you ever seen a one-legged duck? No, I thought not.” This is one of the shorter entries – Taggart tends to go on at some length in others. But you get the idea.
The concept here is a good one: even though rhetorical questions are, by their nature, not intended to elicit responses, what would those responses be if the questions were taken seriously? The problem is that Taggart takes them too seriously. Thus, “Can the leopard change his spots?” (a question from the biblical book of Jeremiah) gets a full-page explanation that includes, among other remarks, “The answer all depends on how long you give the leopard to achieve its transformation,” followed by a discussion of evolution. The Vietnam War chant, “LBJ, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?” garners a note on who Lyndon Baines Johnson was, followed by an estimate of 24. Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” elicits the remark, “The answer to this depends on your attitude to the person asking the question.” And so on.
Actually, and so on and on and on. This is a thin book (160 pages) that seems longer because, after a fairly short time, Taggart’s discussions and attempts at humor start to pall. Quite a bit. This is not to say that they always fall short – some are humorous just because they take themselves so seriously. The answer to the question in the book’s title, for example, amounts to, “Well, not polar bears: where they live, there are no forests.” And when Taggart lets her own likes and dislikes show, coupling them with a fact here and there, she actually approaches wittiness: “Are you going to Scarborough Fair?” gets the following explanation, in its entirety: “Unlikely, as it hasn’t existed since 1788, but it was a big thing in its day. It ran from the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (August 15) to Michaelmas Day (September 29) – that’s quite a party. Anyone who hates the Simon and Garfunkel version of the song of that title as much as any right-thinking person must should try listening to Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash duetting on ‘Girl from the North Country,’ a variant of the song.”
Taggart’s book is intermittently amusing, but does not sustain well even over its modest length. She is often unsure whether she wants to be funny or factual. For example, “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” elicits the initial comment, “As many as he likes, as long as he doesn’t ask for directions,” which is funny enough. But then the rest of the page is an analysis of how many miles people probably do walk annually, plus a warning against walking down a road rather than on the pavement. Taggart is certainly no Al Jaffee. Is a rhetorical-question journey with her really necessary? Feel free to answer as you wish; or don’t.