A week in books: Gang mentality

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The Independent Culture

Fiction writers, who make things up, also practise the most solitary of arts. Among the illusions they invent is the idea of the tight-knit literary clan which loves to share a beer, a gag and a joint manifesto. Part wish-fulfilment, part smokescreen, the myth of the Fiction Gang of bosom pals also serves as a handy marketing tool. A few years ago, the no-frills diktats of the British "New Puritans" helped boost the careers of gifted newcomers such as Toby Litt, Matt Thorne and Anna Davis. As a cogent literary movement, it lasted all of... oh, ten days or so.

Soon after, news of the McSweeney's mob, led by the staggering genius of Dave Eggers, rolled across the Atlantic. The eccentric journal of that name came out of San Francisco, where Eggers ran - I kid you not - a pirate supplies store. The deftly designed anthologies making up his "magazine" offered hip, ironic narrative gambits that matched in prose the offbeat wit of Nineties indie cinema. Eminent refuseniks from the stuffy New York - rather, New Yorker - short-story scene sought a berth with McSweeney's buccaneers.

Tomorrow (4 October), Captain Eggers and some celebrated British fellow-travellers - such as Zadie Smith and Nick Hornby - will be performing at London's Barbican Centre. The event pits their words against the music of the long-lived Brooklyn art-rock group (and McSweeney's collaborators), They Might Be Giants. This multi-media jamboree will launch McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99). Edited by the Pulitzer-winning novelist Michael Chabon, and sold in aid of a San Francisco writing-skills charity, Thrilling Tales gathers 20 big-name contributors into a 500-page pastiche - complete with cheesy ads - of a pulp-fiction album, c.1950.

This "all-genre" issue of McSweeney's revisits the traditions of Golden Age science fiction, horror yarns, ghost stories and detective mysteries. It gives a spread of authors - from Nick Hornby to Elmore Leonard - the chance to shine within these plot-heavy, fantasy-fuelled conventions. Stephen King himself, the bridge between the heyday of the sensational magazine serial and today's gory blockbusters, turns in an eerie Wild West tale.

Chabon's preface snipes at the long hegemony of the tight-laced, modernist "moment-of-truth story". Feel proud of pulp, he exhorts contributors, lifting the curtain on a rackety vaudeville packed with mummies' curses, ghost riders, time-bending detectives and prophetic magic videotapes (the last, courtesy of Nick Hornby). Chabon's own yarn spins a natty alternative-history plot about the British-ruled "Colony of Columbia" in 1876 (the American rebels have long been crushed). It even sports that beloved icon of the entire "steampunk" genre - a transatlantic luxury airship.

Although the McSweeney's bunch relish their stabs at the ripping yarn, the overall tone seldom rises above smart parody. The result, with a few fine exceptions (Michael Moorcock, Rick Moody, Dave Eggers himself) feels too much like an epic Monty Python sketch. Sophomoric sniggers tend to rule, as Thrilling Tales stretches far beyond a joke. Chris Offutt hits a peak of preening self-regard in "Chuck's Bucket", a story about Chris Offutt writing a story for McSweeney's in a panoply of parallel universes. When the in-crowd falls in love with its in-jokes, we should remember that the Fiction Gang - whether McSweeney's or any other clan - always proves fragile and fissile, a not-so-solid crew. Individually, they might be giants. Collectively, they can look distinctly dwarfish.