The United States of McSweeney’s: Ten Years of Accidental Classics

As Nick Hornby writes in his introduction, it is widely assumed that McSweeney's Quarterly Concern is a place for "quirky, ironic writing by young people wearing Oxfam shop clothes who all know each other". There is even a Facebook group called I Am Less Impressed Than You Think I Am That You Read McSweeney's.

Ignore the disingenuous use of the word "accidental" in this book's title; many of its writers - Roddy Doyle, Kevin Brockmeier, Susan Straight, Steven Millhauser - are well-established names while others, such as Wells Tower, are fast-rising stars. Which is precisely why, despite the magazine's decorous packaging and this collection's affected marketing blurb, The United States of McSweeney's gives us a prime opportunity to taste-test contemporary American literature. It has been at the forefront of creating it for the past decade.

Writing in the New York Times, A O Scott argued that the short story still suffers from the assumption that size matters: that in comparison to the novel, it is in danger of looking like “a minor or even vestigial literary form, redolent of MFA-mill make-work and artistic caution . . . an étude rather than a sonata or a symphony". But nothing could be further from the case: not only have American writers such as Poe, Melville and Carver pioneered the form, but the number of endowments and outlets for short stories in the US continues to put other countries (not least Britain) to shame. And, on the evidence of this collection, the American short story is in rude health.

Although it opens with a contribution from Dublin-based Doyle, this anthology is, at its heart, quintessentially American - perhaps most so in its recurring questions about identity and belonging, a long-standing staple of the US literary scene. K Kvashay Boyle's "St Chola" takes the melting pot of a Los Angeles high school during the early days of the Iraq war and adds Shala, a young Indian girl continually mistaken as Hispanic, Iranian or simply a "rag head". The prose is set to a frenetic beat, echoing the breathlessness and confusion of adolescence - amplified when a Girl Scout mother attacks her for wearing a hijab, in the name of "American feminism".

Similar tensions are at play in Rajesh Parameswaran's excruciating "The Strange Career of Dr Raju Gopalarajan", in which an Indian immigrant pretends to be a doctor, sets up a surgery and starts treating patients. The narrative is provided by a member of the disapproving Indian-American community, offering a sort of collective, unified cultural perspective absent from almost all the other works. Yet, like many of the stories, it deals with the loneliness of the immigrant, the delusions that people conjure in order to realise that elusive American dream, and the double irony that doing so can involve preying on other new immigrants.

Many contemporary American novels (by Jonathan Safran Foer and Aleksandar Hemon, for example) deal with these themes, too. Also, like many novels of the moment, this collection contains subversive reworkings of American history - Christopher Stokes tells the story of "The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller" and Millhauser's brilliant "A Precursor to the Cinema" explores the gaps, the "what ifs", in the historical record that tease and confound us.

But short stories can offer something distinct from bulkier literary fodder; they can road-test ideas or metaphors that might simply become overstretched in a novel. So, when the sky above a suburban town starts lowering and crushing buildings in Brockmeier's "The Ceiling", when "Fat Ladies Floated in the Sky Like Balloons" (as Amanda Davis's story is unforgettably titled), when Alison Smith, in a tone reminiscent of Lewis Carroll, tells of a woman with nothing inside her but a "cold, hard breeze" and whose vagina swallows grown men - here is the idiosyncrasy unique to the short form, teased out by some of its most skilful practitioners. This is not to say that novels can't accommodate what one might inadequately call the "surreal". It is just that, when done right, short stories do it better, because they have what Poe called "the immense force derived from totality".

Poe considered the short story superior to the novel because it could give shape to an entire world. Yet many McSweeney's writers seem less confident of this - which is why their work is so intriguing. Their words are slippery, rebellious. Brian Evenson's "Mudder Tongue", about a man who loses control over the words coming out of his mouth, elegantly inverts the idea of being immersed in language. Here, words become a prison. Similarly, many of the stories seem to be tugging at the constraints of their own form. There is a restless search for authenticity - in Adam Levin's "Hot Pink", we are told that "there's nothing wrong with drama for its own sake . . . What's wrong is doing the same thing everyone else does and thinking you're original." This is coupled with a recognition of how a literary endeavour, whatever its shape, can never be brought to completion. "I always got a war going up in here," says the bum in Tower's "Executors of Important Energies". "That's just how it is being a genius."

So while it is easy to scoff at the gimmicks rolled out by McSweeney's Inc, which now offers weekly updates on your iPhone for $5.99, The United States of McSweeney's is substantial and edifying. As with any collection, there are items that disappoint (A M Homes's "Do Not Disturb" left me cold). But for the most part, these works do what short stories do best: they illuminate what Frank O'Connor called that "private thing", the delicate threads of our inner lives, and show them in an intriguing light.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London