Friday, 9 January 2009

A Review: McSweeney's 29

I have just finished reading McSweeney’s 29, the latest ‘Quarterly Concern’ edited by Dave Eggers.

It is a beautiful book, hardback, ‘a finely die-cut cover wrapped in several kinds of cloth’ with cut-out moon. Inside there is colour art on every page, mostly collectable Eastern European matchbox labels, beautiful and strange images that strike a fine contrast with the stories on offer. The paper and print are both great quality, and I loved the smell and feel of the paper as I was reading. (Reading is a whole experience is it not?)

And I have so enjoyed the stories themselves. It is a quirky collection, great stories with a focus towards the surreal/science fiction, but not at the expense of emotion. I headed straight to ‘Labyrinth’ by Joyce Carol Oates. A story on the endpaper written as a spiral, so you have to move the book constantly to read it, something I would not have done for many writers, and perhaps only for one like Joyce Carol Oates whose stories I love. ‘Labyrinth’ is a very short sinister story and worth the effort.

One story (which I wasn’t too keen on) is written as a series of TV shows, another more convincing story by Yannick Murphy follows the repeated and ever-changing cycle of a vets life, through each CALL, ACTION, RESULT, THOUGHTS ON DRIVE HOME, WHAT THE CHILDREN SAID TO ME WHEN I GOT HOME, WHAT THE WIFE COOKED FOR DINNER. Although I found the ending a little weird, kind of funny but also a little disappointing.

Several stories focus on strange creatures – mythical, imaginary or symbolic. J Erin Sweeney’s ‘Augury’ is a story about the ‘Loris’ an animal that can give unsolicited advice and is brought to Rockville Pennsylvania to try and cheer up the locals. It’s a bizarre tale that I found very entertaining. ‘History Lesson’ by Nelly Reifler, is the story of a couple with a failing relationship who find two unnamed creatures and take them home and try to care for them, almost as if they are nurturing the failings in their relationship. I found this last story, oddly moving. It seemed to capture something for me about relationships in a most unusual way.

There are three stories however that I loved above all the others: ‘Cadence’ by Erica Plouffe Lazure is only four pages long, but the main image is horrific and vivid, and the emotional content very strong.

Laura Hendrix’s ‘A Record of Our Debts’ was most compelling. Selma has a serious problem, she is a half-crazed girl, with an illness that is slowly infecting the whole village, and everyone blames Selma and her family. The story is told from the point of view of her sister, a beautifully-written child perspective, that I loved reading. I was absolutely gripped by the story, the language, and the narrative voice.

And then, Roddy Doyle’s ‘The Painting’. I love Roddy Doyle’s novels, most of all The Woman Who Walked into Doors. This short story, split into very short ‘chapters’ and written in such an easy to read style, I found achingly sad. It felt like the story crept into me, in the same way that Adam creeps into his neighbours’ house at night to alter the painting of the woman he begins to love. It is set in a very down to earth world, the dialogue, as usual, for Roddy Doyle is wonderful, real and funny, and the story is tightly written, quite perfect. It also contained my favourite line in the book, which is even better read in context: ‘The Eskimos, it is said, have two hundred words for snow. The Irish had many words for no.’

I have only recently subscribed to McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and wish oh wish I had known about it way back when it started. It feels like an absolute must for a short story lover. And I wish oh wish I could afford to buy the back issues. I wait in eagerness for the next one.


Michelle said...

Annie, thanks so much for this. I picked it up a couple of weeks ago because I was intrigued with the cover - and then I put it back on the shelf thinking it would, perhaps, be too gimmicky. I'll have to find out if there's a copy left.

Megan said...

Wonderful review Annie. I would so love to get my hands on this, especially for Ms Oates in a spiral ( :
Many thanks,

Pam said...

I want to read this too! Thanks Annie!

aphrabenn20 said...

Interesting review Annie, and I'll look out for this book. I do love the whole sensual experience of reading a book, particularly the smell!

CallistoCF said...

Hey Annie- Great review! I've been reading McSweeney's for a while, and it's terribly habit forming, and awfully awesome.
I'm brought to comment because I loved The Painting by Roddy Doyle, and just came online to see what else he had written- I saw the review, and just had to comment!
While I haven't read anything else by Doyle, I've been recommending this story to everyone I know, because it is achingly sad, brilliantly written, and real in that way that puts terms like 'catharsis,' magical-realism or critical theory to being just terms before stories like this. What really brings me to recommend this story, and not stop talking about it, is that the whole of this story left me just inspired- I don't contend with your review at all, but I hope just to add and counter-balance (and justify how much can be said about this story!) by lauding what a 'Wow!' and liveliness I read in this story, 'The Painting.' Surely, I'll be picking up The Woman who Walked into Doors, I've always wanted to go to Ireland, but I can't wait to hear what this story gives to all those I've recommended it to- Thanks, dig the blog!