McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales ed. by Michael Chabon
McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales
Edited by Michael Chabon
Vintage. 480 pp. $13.95 (paper)
Contemporary fiction is a deceptively fertile patch of ground. More new books are being published now than perhaps ever before in recorded memory; but it is clear that amid all this Potemkinvillage profusion, critical standards have been more or less gleefully left behind. One of the biggest beneficiaries of the general abandonment of critical judgment has been a magazine of new writing called Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern—hereinafter, McSweeney’s.
McSweeney’s first appeared as a web-based operation in 1996; its presiding genius, Dave Eggers, would later become a publishing sensation as the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2001), a clever if ultimately unsatisfying memoir of the years he spent raising his young brother after their parents’ death. Over the course of its relatively brief existence, the magazine, rising from its humble origins as a site for absurdist humor and slices-of-postmodern-life (“An Interview With Parken Ward Brown, Age Two, On The Recent Visit Of Local TV Weatherman Ben Gelber To His Preschool,” and the like), has set up its own publishing imprint, by now the most visible part of the fiefdom. Serving as a clearing-house for the sallies of young, chic authors, McSweeney’s Books has issued Lawrence Krauser’s Lemon, Amy Futterman’s The Pharmacist’s Mate, Stephen Dixon’s I., The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, and Eggers’s own sophomore effort, And You Will Know Our Velocity. The books, like the magazine, are harmless but thin and wholly unmemorable.
But now McSweeney’s has tried something new, bringing out, for its tenth issue, a collection of what is generally and dismissively known as “genre fiction”: horror stories, sci-fi, western yarns, and so forth. Issued in book form, McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales is, if not exactly thrilling, at least a very good read.
This should not come as a shock. The idea for the Treasury originated with the well-known writer Michael Chabon, whose own novels, particularly Wonder Boys (1996) and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2001) embody the qualities that writers normally appearing in McSweeney’s aim for but seldom achieve: compelling renderings of the at once hilarious and deeply sad cultural tropes of American life. In his introduction, indeed, Chabon declares the Treasury to be an effort to move away from “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, revelatory moment-of-truth story”—precisely the kind of story that is, alas, the McSweeney’s stock in trade. (Think of the bloodless crossroads where Raymond Carver and John Barth meet.)
Partly by dint of what it avoids, the Treasury must be called a success. Which is not to say that its contents amount to great literature. Most of it is not even good. But mis collection is both more inviting and much more pleasurable to read than the magazine’s normal melange of turgid prose and graduate-seminar emoting. And it includes one standout offering: Nick Hornby’s “Otherwise Pandemonium.” Nominally a story about a VCR that predicts the end of the world, this tale by the author of High Fidelity (1996) and About A Boy (1999) eschews metaphysical speculation or tawdry displays of self to focus on something much more interesting: the lusts and insecurities that are the central emotional material of adolescence. It would be pretentious to call “Otherwise Pandemonium” a meditation on human resilience, but it does slyly nod in that direction.
Although not of the same caliber, other stories in the Treasury are also worth mentioning. Chris Offutt, a writer of the My-Old-Dysfunctional-Kentucky-Home school, here sets aside the bleak tone of his 1998 novel The Good Brother to give us, in “Chuck’s Bucket,” a clever, highly self-referential tale of time travel and (of all unlikely subjects) the petty frustrations of the writing life. Elmore Leonard’s “How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman” showcases this hardboiled author’s trademark combination of dry humor, taut prose, and exactly the right amount of pulpiness. And then there is “The Bees” by Dan Chaon, a writer whose short-story collection Among The Missing was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001; an atmospheric yarn about the demons haunting a former alcoholic, “The Bees” is genuinely and satisfyingly creepy.
There are two low points amid all the high-octane action. Rick Moody’s interminable “The Albertine Notes” begins with a promising piece of noirish cyberpunk—a drug that allows its users to relive their memories as an anodyne to the rigors of life in a post-apocalyptic New York City—but devolves into a series of deadly and drearily earnest maunderings. Worse still, and the real nadir of the collection, is Dave Eggers’s “Up A Mountain Coming Down Slowly,” the story of a group of boorish Americans on a touristy jaunt on Kilimanjaro that drags with exquisite slowness over events as trivial as they are meant to be portentous and feels as long as the climb itself.
In announcing the publication of the Treasury on their website, the editors of McSweeney’s fended off expected accusations of philistinism by archly declaring that their hope was to put out a book that would be salable “in supermarkets and airports.” Their dream has come true: the Treasury is such a book, and it has indeed been selling.
Moreover, it deserves its success: unfortunately for the pretensions of Eggers and company, most of the stories in the Treasury surpass any of the more self-consciously highbrow fare published under the McSweeney’s imprint. Merely to juxtapose one of the Treasury’s tales of derring-do with the sort of “plotless” contemporary fiction in which Eggers and his friends specialize is to see how much the latter have to learn from the vast congeries of junk fiction that, for better or worse, forms a significant part of our literary landscape. Heavy-handed and vaguely emotive prose wedded to trite, utterly sentimental ideas may provide brief spasms of excitement for those wishing to feel literary, but those seeking literary pleasure are right to look elsewhere—even among cowboys, ghosts, and reptilian nightmares out of H. Rider Haggard.