McSweeney’s 16 & 17

14/01/06, The Times

They say about capitalism that it is capable of appropriating for its own purposes any dissenting movement, any opposition to it, neutralising it and turning it on its head. So, for example, everything that starts out life as anti-branding and anti-label becomes a brand itself. Look at Muji. Or, better still, look at McSweeney’s. A magazine begun by David Eggers (of Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius fame) with the intention of publishing stories rejected by others, it featured some outstanding works by a set of people who swiftly became a clique: David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, A.M. Holmes, Heidi Julavits, Jonathan Lethem, William T. Vollmann. It gave voice to a different ethos, a different sensibility, not just in fiction but also in book-design, editorial practices, generic boundaries and horizons.

But different is different only for so long before it becomes a tic and Mc Sweeney’s frenetic chasing of the outré in its singleminded search of the original has now begun to show its exhaustion and emptiness. How does one explain the comb that comes in an inner sleeve of McSweeney’s 16? The book is a nest of flaps and folds containing two books, one comb and, don’t laugh, a deck of 15 cards – 13 hearts that can be read in any order and a beginning and an end which must be read at the start and finish of the 13. The deck of cards is a story, ‘Heart Suit’, by veteran Robert Coover. Someone should tell him, ‘Been there, Done that’ and buy him the T-shirt; he appears not to know how tired this particular trick is. Of the two books, one is wholly given over to a story by Ann Beattie titled ‘Mr. Nobody At All’.  Once again, there is an attempt to galvanise a hoary old trope – that of several friends and relatives reminiscing about a dead central character at a memorial gathering – but it’s only intermittently successful. Better work resides in the pages of the other book. Kevin Moffett’s ‘The Medicine Man’, perfectly pitched and perfectly written, tells the sad story of a manic-depressive mentally retarded young man and his attachment to his sister. Pia Z. Ehrhardt’s ‘Driveway’ is a bleak, equally finely calibrated and restrained story of mothers, wives and the simmering end of marriages and relationships.

McSweeney’s 17 is where things start getting tricky, in all senses of the term. Designed as a rubber band-bound collection of junk mail and subscription magazines, it is an elaborate spoof of a number of things. One of the publications is a faux-academic journal called ‘Yeti Researcher: The Magazine of the Society for Cryptic Hominid Investigation’. There are two flyer catalogues, one for clothing and one for sausages, that send up the culture of mail order catalogues, shopping and, beyond it, the larger malaise of a society fairly choking and gagging on its gullibility and consumerism. One story comes prefaced with a charity spam letter. There is a sampling of an art magazine that intends to send its subscribers reproductions of a certain number of contemporary artworks in frameable format. And only one small booklet of stories, with punctuating photographs of soft organs such as kidneys and other unidentifiable bloody flesh.

Faced with a publication of this sort, where stories constitute less than a quarter of the whole, a reviewer is completely within her rights not to bother with them. After all, the stories don’t seem to be the point, these overinvolved in-jokes, send-ups and laboured satires are. If this is subversion, it is one of an affluence that knows it can waste resources and money in pursuit of such aimless, arid gimmickry. It’s time to call its bluff and expose its emperor’s-new-clothes quality. It’s time someone piped out that Dave Eggers has no clothes on.