Hamish Hamilton £20
McSweeney's 29, ed David Eggers
Good things come in cool packages...
Sunday 12 April 2009
Many of the stories in the journal McSweeney's Quarterly Concern emerge like fading transmissions from parallel universes: accounts of backwoods primitivism from Laura Hendrix and Nathaniel Minton, or tales of psychic monkeys and fish by J Erin Sweeney and John Thorson. A disconnection with the idea of history underpins Ben Greenman's account of a failed institution, as well as contributions from Nelly Reifler and Peter Orner: she declares that "Nothing is worse than the vision of your own obsolescence," while he describes his generation as "nostalgic pygmies".
Back in 2001, when McSweeney's was only two years old, the New York Times ran an excoriating review under the heading "Too Cool for Words" arguing that the defining style is "minor-key... unbearably whimsical" and that the stories are secondary to the packaging. Nothing much has changed in the intervening years. And yet... McSweeney's continues to excite. Much of the reason lies with editor David Eggers, whose belief in the transcendent value of literature would put Leavis to shame. He works to keep it alive, for instance, through his 826 National foundation that offers writing classes to inner-city schools. The packaging of the McSweeney's journals is luxurious and beautiful (huzzahs to Penguin for publishing here). Joyce Carol Oates' spooky micro-story is printed as a spiral on the end-papers, as though to prove that form and content in the McSweeney's universe interact almost as often as they wilfully diverge. Taken together, the high-minded agenda and the high-quality product amount to what we might vaguely call an activist aesthetic.
Roddy Doyle's contribution is the most obviously political: the story of a Polish artist that continues Doyle's attempts to write for a multi-ethnic Ireland. If McSweeney's activism is vague elsewhere, this is because everything in its world is vague. If it is too cool for words, it is quite unlike the self-assured cool of the 1950s and 1960s. It is softer and geekier: its archetypal hero is not the jazz messenger but, perhaps, the autistic. The most McSweeney-esque contribution comes from the autistic writer Blaze Ginsberg: "My Crush on Hilary Duff". These half-buried shards are the reason why McSweeney's continues to matter.
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