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Saturday, April 12, 2008

McSweeney's Impressions

The books smell.  I open the cover and I think of store-fresh running shoes.  It's a scent of new rubber.

The Icelandic one, McSweeney's 15, has a collection of Icelandic magazine snippets. They look like trashy magazines to me. While I examine the snippet I cannot read, my wife opens number 15. She notices that the copyright page has a story in it.
"Weird," she says. I read it. It starts, "We are writing this copyright page from Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Novermber 2, because we were hoping to contribute some manpower to this state, which was seen as winnable by the good guys in this terrifying and also extremely terrifying and did we mention
completely fucking terrifying election." It proceeds to tell an odd little story about election night, 2004, that uses up the entire page.

"Well, at least they make good use of their space," I said. The story gives me a mixed first impression.

Then I read the first real story, "A Precursor of the Cinema," by Steven Millhauser. "Boring," I think, but I give it a shot anyway. It has a funny little Scandinavian engraving at the heading of the chapter. I think, "Whaa!
Man overboard!" The story reads like a historical document, but one that slowly brings to light a mystery. It is like an inventor's biography, but with a patina of Ripley's Believe It or Not or a ghost story. It surprises me, and I like it. The next story is titled "Lie Down and Die" (by Seth Fried), and it's only two pages, so I read that, too. It is more introspective and thoughtful, and contains an interesting perspective on death. I would think of it a week later, while reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

I jump to the one with the maze, number 18. The copyright story is fun, with the editor making crazy promises about issue 19. The table of contents is a maze. I navigate to a short story, "In a Bear's Eye" (by Yannick Murphy), because it is short, and the baby is going to wake up
soon. I want to write something up for my blog. On the surface, it is about a woman (known only as "the woman") trying to protect her son from a bear. The story twists and turns, jumps perspectives, and reflects, maze-like. Every sentence is short. It reads choppy, like Hemingway, and I note that I'm sometimes concerned about choppiness in my own writing. But the choppiness here doesn't bug me. I find myself noticing things not written. Short flashbacks call up the woman's dead husband and how he "walked into the ocean one day and he did not stop walking."  She and her son tell comforting lies about how he's still walking down there, touching pufferfish for fun, etc. All I can think of during this paragraph is his corpse floating in the water, even though there is no mention of it.  The next paragraph describes her husband's
tourbook of China scrawled with his note to, "Visit the Wall." She talks about how he wanted to see it, but I immediately read it as a command to her and her son. However, I suspect that the story will not follow this up. I start to see the story not for what it is, but for what it could be, for the unfulfilled possibilities passed up by the woman and her son. Then I flip to the front cover and consider destiny as a maze. It is an interesting idea. They don't go to China.

Moving on, I decide to leave the book with George Bush on the cover alone for now, and open the more interesting folding
volume instead. Inside one flap is a comb. A set of thirteen cards, all hearts, all covered with prose, rests in the other. They form a story titled, "Heart Suit" (by Robert Coover). The instructions tell me I can shuffle them and start reading with the title card, making sure to finish with the Joker. I do this, and preserve the order so you can see. The basis of the story is that the Queen of Hearts has baked some tarts for the king, but someone has stolen them! The king is furious that someone would have the gall to steal his tarts, and the offender will pay with his life.

Reading along, I am not that impressed with how shuffling the cards affects the story. The framework of the story is constructed so that all of the characters are interchangeable, which allows the story to 
always makes sense, but makes every reading basically the same. Continuing, I find myself chuckling at some of the bawdy parts and rolling my eyes at others. Subtexts of randomness and interchangeability pop out. 

I am surprised. I find myself thinking, "So what if the Knave of Hearts was caught bedding the queen. I don't even care who stole the tarts. This is the interesting part." And then I reach the last card.
All-in-all, I am pleased with McSweeney's, and I would recommend it to people who like stories that buck convention, or want to try something different. It's not billed as Sci-fi or Fantasy, but the stories I read came close, and I don't doubt there are some that fall squarely into the SFF categories.

1 comment:

Mister Troll said...

It sounds interesting. You'll have to show it to me some time.