June 2006

Shaun Manning

fiction

McSweeney's Quarterly Concern #19 edited by Dave Eggers

McSweeney's has always been the eccentric cousin in the literary journal family, a condition that has only been exasperated by its growing rock-star profile. Its short stories and essays are not necessarily the best published in a given year, but the voices are always fresh. The wheat-to-chaff ratio hovers around 50%, which, given the new and regular contributors' stylistic experimentation, is not a terrible place to be.

Issue 19, comprised of a 144-page paperback and several replicas of historical pamphlets housed in a cigar box, presents itself as a time capsule: the majority of stories take place prior to the turn of the twentieth century, and the facsimile letters and flyers suggest odd relics that may be found in a grandparent's attic. A wallet-sized card gives instructions on air raid procedure, while a larger booklet details how one might protect himself from nuclear fallout. Perhaps most exciting, though, is a thin white pamphlet entitled "Your Horoscope Tells You How You Can Help Republican Party WIN!" Originally published by the RNC circa 1967, the booklet advises Virgos to "offer your services where information is needed... in short, you are excellent spy material!" This, coupled with a squarebound guide for soldiers on Middle East decorum, digs through the past to provide a strangely biting commentary on today's political culture.

The book-proper leads off with Christopher Howard's "Prince of the World." Set in 1818, the story follows Labelle, the child of an Indian and a runaway slave, as he sets out to create a life in a world that is neither wild nor wholly civilized. The silent protagonist is not a terribly engaging lead, only really catching the reader's attention by the awe other characters afford him. Instead, Labelle acts primarily as a cipher through which the author can explore a particular place at a particular time, and in this linguistic landscaping Howard's skill is laudable.

Brendan Connell's "The Life of Captain Garreth Caernarvon" shifts between journaling and third-person narrative to tell an absurd story of sportsmanship, cross-dressing, and cannibalism. It is strange, then, that such a tale should feel so similar to another short in the same volume, Sean Casey's "The First Chapter." Of the two, Casey's is the more spritely read, despite the narrator's uneven voice -- his precise and overly erudite language occasionally lapses into such frat boy colloquialisms as "Physically, his bod smoked." Connell's piece, though, is a terrific parody of the historical diary, William Byrd's "I said my prayers and ate milk for breakfast" transformed to "Knives strapped to foreheads: men peck like birds."

Dispersed through this issue are excerpts from Adam Golaski's Color Plates, a collection of short stories based on Degas paintings and their wall labels. Golaksi works best with large casts and, again, ridiculous situations: his interpretations of The Bellelli Family and The Cotton Market, New Orleans are exquisite, while his missive on The Café Singer lacks the vital hook of the other two.

A new T.C. Boyle novella takes over the full second half of the journal, a fictionalized account of the Wild Child of Aveyron. Here, Boyle takes the known facts of Victor's emergence from the wild and subsequent training at the hands of Dr. Itard and weaves a stirring tale of human nature and social convention. It's a familiar story, previously dramatized in Truffaut's L'Enfant Savage and elsewhere, but Victor's story is still fertile ground for exploring the proper role of primal instinct in "enlightened" society. Boyle's prose is curt and officious, seemingly siding with the civilizing forces at the hospital; yet his boyish glee in describing Victor's misdeeds ("scrambling up the trunk of Madame Récamier's plane trees like an arboreal ape") cannot help but highlight the inherent animalistic appeal of stripping off and having a good dump on the living room floor.

It is difficult to discuss McSweeney's without considering the design. Ever since the comic issue -- the major conceit being that the issue was a single comics broadsheet, with a large hardcover book thrown in free -- the journal has increasingly experimented with difficult-to-shelve volumes. This tendency reached its pinnacle with number seventeen, which resembled a pile of junk mail bound by a rubber band. Thankfully, the cigar box provides adequate (and more or less book-shaped) housing for McSweeney's 19's various inserts. There is still the matter of portability, and, of course, the question of new literature. The small paperback of new writing can easily be taken on the subway, which is a step up from the aforementioned pile of clever faux advertisements, but the supplemental materials are best kept in the box for home consumption. And at 144 pages, this quarterly is quite diminutive. The issues featuring inventive packaging, typically two of the four per annum, are decidedly sparse on content; three short stories and a novella does not make for a whole lot of reading material. Is the sacrifice worth it, to promote design as well as prose, to give McSweeney's a distinctive voice? It is largely a matter of personal taste, but there is a certain electric anticipation with each new issue as fans and subscribers wait to see what form the issue will take, and ponder what they'll think of next.

McSweeney's Quarterly Concern #19 edited by Dave Eggers
McSweeney's Quarterly Concern
ISBN 193241648X
144 pages plus inserts