As I progressed through Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country, I couldn’t help but formulating a theory that tied the travel book in a very tight knot with the NYU Sydney program. Perhaps, I considered, the faculty at NYU Sydney used the book as a basis for lots of topics of study, even snatching specific details to insert into lecture slides. Just a few weeks ago, a reading assigned for Environmental Journalism class was Tim Low’s “When Beauty is the Beast.” Bryson specifically refers to the book that includes this chapter/article, but directs the reader’s attention to the information in this specific article. The one we were assigned. The one I wrote uncannily similar humorous things about in my own blog post for the course.
Don’t tell the professors here, but I think Bryson offered a wider, more interesting perspective of Australia than a majority of lectures and lessons in my classes. I really didn’t understand or know much about life in places other than Sydney other than through random generalizations that had to be pieced together in a broken framework. For instance, life in the bush and the outback was a blur in class, but in Bryson’s book, I observed treks in states other than New South Wales, met other travelers from remote regions of Australia, sat in bars, bars the most telling features of the arid landscape, full of local people and local television and local beers and local atmosphere. And little snippets on Australian legend like the infamous Ned Kelly were incredibly funny and insightful. In class, I learned he was a murderous bushranger that is admired by the Australian population. Of course, this offers a ton of insight into how crime is interpreted by popular Australian culture. But I didn’t feel like I understood much of Ned Kelly and his crimes nor did I feel too Australian about the whole deal in general. I felt like an outsider who couldn’t get it in the way an Australian could. When Bryson describes his laughable encounter with the antiquated animatronic Ned Kelly walk-through (see featured image) and his companion’s quite detailed descriptions, such as Ned Kelly killing off two policemen slowly by shooting them in the testicles, I felt more engaged, more invited by Australian culture, like I was given the scoop on an inside joke. Sure, maybe I didn’t originate the joke, but I wasn’t left awkwardly on the outside.
And the way that Bryson approaches Australia, with his humorous writing, may be even more telling of the Australia that I’m discovering than even Bryson knew while he was writing. Comedy has its watermark behind much of Australian culture. From the first days of colonization, people were less than satisfied with the land’s lack of lushness and vitality, or so vitality and life as their perspective was concerned. The colonizers were tricked by a beautiful coast, brought inland to a very stark and brutal landscape. To deal with this misery of place, dark humor forged its way onto the pages of early writers and into the quips between early people. Today, there’s an Australian tradition of sarcasm and rough comedy. The coping mechanism of the past lives on, probably occasionally necessary for those living in the Outback or the bush, but adopted by city-dwellers. Bryson’s sometimes crude and always witty humor is characteristically Australian. He deals with his time in Australia how an Australian must: chuckling at the overly complicated system of voting (my professor said how he wouldn’t even bother trying to explain it to us further than something along the lines of your vote goes to your second choice if your first choice can’t possibly win the election—I’m not sure, I was lost the second sentence into that mini-lecture), expressing wordless shock at racism towards Aboriginal people, and embracing the random ridiculous, like a giant lobster landmark.