McSweeney's Quarterly Concern is closer to actual sentience than any other widely read literary journal. Founded in 1998 by the San Francisco writer Dave Eggers, it publishes "works rejected by other magazines". Reading issues of McSweeney's and of its review and interview-based sister publication, The Believer, you get to watch literature really having some fun. Journals of this kind are forums for fact, fiction, enthusiasm, wit, and self-consciously performative section headings tangling themselves into a largely amiable ball.
The McSweeney's refusal to isolate genres from each other can, however, become the reading equivalent of attempting to eat from a plate that keeps hopping away and wriggling derisively. The best of the stories featured here aren't characterised by the uniformity of their bookish kookiness; they are just good: pure in the pursuit of their ends. Taken discretely, "Catskin", Kelly Link's story from McSweeney's 10, and this issue's "Grandpa Clemens and Angelfish 1906" form two brilliant but opposing subdivisions of "troubling". The former is about a witch who mothers both cats and children ("One girl she had grown like a cyst, upon her thigh"); the latter is Joyce Carol Oates's imaginative dip into the last years of a great American writer.
"Catskin" has a light, calm touch, but Oates's story is half-submerged in the effort of living through the death of one's most able self. Chronicling an old man's inability to sustain his creativity and his failures to reconcile his public and private personas of writer and father, "Grandpa Clemens" is a study of the damage that results from self-delusion. It's a poignant elaboration on Emily Dickinson's "The heart asks pleasure first/And then excuse from pain . . ."
The heart's asking is answered with actions that can't, or won't, be explained. "Grandpa" Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, wins a 15-year-old girl's affections with inked kisses blotted on paper, cakes and ballet - he decides Maddy is 14, the age his daughter was when she died of meningitis. And when his fantasy struggles free from him, and Maddy innocently reminds him of her real age, his abrupt withdrawal from her breaks his mind and her own.
McSweeney's 21 seems preoccupied with the wayward demands of our inner lives. This issue is interspersed with copies of letters (the term "fan letters" somehow doesn't quite cover the ones that contain nuggets of advice about diet) that people have really, truly, been writing to the singer Ray Charles over the years. Names, addresses and, in one instance, a social security number have been removed to provide anonymity. Only a page separates someone's unique plea for Mr Charles's autograph ("Kingdom for it - PLEASE!!!") from Holly Tav el's "Last Words", a short story laced with the dented logic of dreams and centred around conversations with a macaw that has seen more than its years should allow.
Other highlights include Roddy Doyle's "The Pram", in which a Polish nanny to a family in Dublin is worn thin by an oppressive sense of foreignness and becomes a filter for the disinterested cruelty of her charges. The story is told with just the right degree of sick detachment: "She felt bone and shifting tongues. She could feel their screams in her hands." Miranda July, whose beautiful 2005 film Me and You and Everyone We Know managed to connect excretion with love for at least a minute, contributes a wistful piece, "Majesty". Effortlessly it connects a dream about Prince William to the fulfilment of a woman's need for reassurance that she is able to love: "Gradually I realised he had lifted up the back of my skirt and was nuzzling his face between my buns. He was doing this because he loved me." Even if we do come from "long lines of people, destined to meet", and the people around us are capable of comforting us and each other - why aren't we capable of asking? (July has the words "Let me in! Let me in!" pounding in my ears.)
Greg Ames's "I Feel Free", meanwhile, sees its protagonist, Bobby, descend into recklessness. And whose nerves wouldn't be shattered when faced with Trang, a human-shaped combination of menace and the mundane filled with a possessiveness that leads him to collect not only antique snow globes but your girlfriend's love? Smashing the bastard's snow globes is divine joy: "I felt exalted. It was an orgy of demolition. God must have felt like this every day, striking down innocent people and animals, destroying entire villages." Insanity (however temporary) is not to be romanticised as a new kind of power, but oh, the heart . . . etc.