Monday, August 08, 2005

A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius

When it comes to reading, I am inherently suspicious of anything too clever. Call me a literary Luddite, but when people start writing Chapter Ones on the inside flap of covers, printing whole stories onto book spines, and that sort of thing, I do get disoriented. What next, I think to myself, an inside-out book?

I was therefore relieved to find that The Best Of McSweeney's: Volume 1 (ed. Dave Eggers) appeared to be a book in the most traditional sense possible. It's an accessible mix of fiction and non-fiction writing lifted from the first ten issues of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, a literary journal that, like London's Zembla magazine, has made reading cool again.

Four out of the eighteen authors showcased here are household names (David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Rick Moody, and Mr E. himself), which is a pleasing proportion. The book stays true to the McSweeney's vision, to have "a journal assembled from [articles] not fit for other magazines". Yet there are just enough big guns included to assure readers of McSweeney's place in the game.

The collection opens with one of the highlights of the book, David Foster Wallace's short story Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders (viii), a vaguely menacing monologue delivered by a character whose flatness of tone borders on autism. The lack of emotion contrasts sharply with a potential for terrible violence, suggested via short flashbacks relating to a recent release (from custody? jail sentence? asylum? It's not really clear), as well as an allusion between the dominance of female spiders over their partners, and the characters' own relationship with his mother.

This was followed by George Saunders' equally excellent Four Institutional Monologues, a satirical look at the culture of insensitivity and cynicism, dressed up as 'professionalism', as propagated by the modern institution.

All was well until Ann Cummins' The Hypnotist's Trailer. The pacing was slightly choppy, leading to inexplicable psychological revelations and sudden crises. Moreover, the mechanics of this story were somewhat dubious: a woman takes her daughter into a hypnotherapy session with her; the shrink and daughter chat and flirt while the shrink is treating the woman under hynosis; the woman, of her own volition, gets up and leaves the session while under hypnosis.

Happily, weak points in the book are few and far between. Mr Eggers' own story Up The Mountain Coming Down Slowly sits smack bang in the middle of the collection like the centrepiece, the metaphorical mountain peak, the halfway-point. Moodwise, it also bisects the book, and in the second half the humour content is substantially upped, most noticeably with John Hodgman's hilarious short play Fire: The Next Sharp Stick?

The chunkiest entry was Gary Greenberg's In The Kingdom Of The Unabomber, a non-fiction account of his almost-encounter with Ted Kaczynski, the "anti-modernist" terrorist who attributed much of modern physical, psychological, and environmental suffering to the Industrial Revolution. Weighing in at 84 pages, reading Kingdom was like cheering a friend on in a marathon. Sometimes up, sometimes down, almost-but-never-quite in the lead; Greenberg writes the account with an objectivity granted by hindsight, but is also frank about his struggle to act ethically as he tries to convince the elusive Kaczynski to grant him an interview whilst juggling an ever-increasing rollcall of characters eager to cash in on the Unabomber circus.

The Best Of McSweeney's: Volume 1 displays careful editing and selection. The apparently disparate pieces come together as you read on, revealing a faceted critique of modernity- the language, the prejudices, the exploitation, the casualties, the pathos and the bathos- that probably would have done the Unabomber proud.

As well, I loved finding little secret links: the way Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov was namechecked in two separate pieces, as was the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. This added to the book an air of accidental continuity, like a collection of fortuitously star-cross'd writing.


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10:02 AM  

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