McSweeney’s 30

Short cuts to success

Reviewing an instalment of McSweeney’s is a potentially hazardous undertaking. When the San Francisco-based literary journal first went to press in 1998 it only ran work that had been rejected by other magazines. A decade on, the Quarterly Concern now takes its own contributions, but its success is still a joyous riposte to the whole institutional system of literary value assessment, proof positive that editors and critics are not always right. That said, the 11 short stories in the new issue are a varied bunch, in quality as well as style.

The strongest work here is by Wells Tower, a New York-based thirtysomething whose first volume of short stories was published this year. “Retreat” is a quintessentially American tale in which a pair of estranged brothers head out into the wilderness to restore their relationship – and shoot things. There is a fraternal disagreement over moose meat but the story itself is no carcass: Tower has hammered out a decent narrative arc and sequinned it with flashes of wit.

Besides “Retreat”, the stories that succeed are those built on cunning conceptual scaffolding. Shelly Oria’s “The Beginning of a Plan” draws its vigour from two deliciously surreal scenarios: the narrator works as a “soaper,” lathering clients for money in an establishment so established that it is girded by elaborate union regulations, and the story is punctuated by regular “time-stops”, when the world stands still and when stranded travellers at airports, rather than ponder the metaphysical ramifications, yell: “But I need to get to my convention, asshole.”

Elsewhere, Etgar Keret’s “Bad Karma” succeeds on another, equally bizarre premise: Oshri, an uninsured insurance salesman, is bankrupted by medical bills after a suicide jumper injures him by landing on his head. Other stories here lack both the well-forged narrative of Tower’s work and the clever conceit of Oria and Keret. Too much of the writing seems like undiluted life experience, squeezed on to the page in the first person and labelled as fiction. Well into J Malcolm Garcia’s “Cuts”, the narrator, director of a shelter for the homeless, admits that in order to fit in with his fellow workers he invented a fictitious past as an alcoholic.

“My recovery became part of my professional persona,” he admits. “The story circulated and expanded with details I never offered. It gave me street cred. I never corrected it.” Yet this fascinating set-up is barely expanded upon. Instead, whether or not it actually is autobiographical, “Cuts” reads like a documentary, and stumbles on the insurmountable problem that real life is terribly badly plotted.

Part of the McSweeney’s tradition is the championing of new writers through their apprenticeship, but some of the authors stabled here are handicapped by a belief that plot is unnecessary and realism plain wrong. The stories contain lucid fragments of Americana, but too many lack the structure to bracket these sharp observations. Tower sums up the problem in the foreword to the issue. “In a pinch non-fiction can squeeze by on cold connections,” he writes. “You go out and witness things, and if you’ve got a few compelling scenes you can fuse them with the cold rivets of journalistic writing – the transition, the fraudulent hardware of arc and angle.” As he himself proves, however, fiction requires greater finesse.

McSweeney's 30
Edited by Dave Eggers
Hamish Hamilton, 288pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape