The Better of McSweeney's Vol. 2
  edited by Dave Eggers

McSweeney's Books
2010, Paperback

Authors Chris Adrian, Tom Bissell, Roddy Doyle, Ben Ehrenreich, Brian Evenson, Seth Fried, Roy Kesey, Adam Levin, Claire Light, Miranda Mellis, Philipp Meyer, Steven Millhauser, Kevin Moffett, Yannick Murphy, Shann Ray, Jim Shepard, Rachel Sherman, Alison Smith, Susan Steinberg, J. Erin Sweeney, Wells Tower, Sean Warren

Editor Dave Eggers has authored numerous fiction, nonfiction and humor books, including What Is the What, a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award. He is founder and editor of independent publishing house McSweeney’s, as well as co-founder of the literacy project, 826 Valencia.

"One day you are more repulsive than attractive, and the good will of strangers is lost forever."

Reviewed by Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau

The first thing you’ll notice about this book is the blown-up photo of a gallbladder on its cover. The second thing you’ll notice is that it has no introduction, no note from the editor, and not even the editor’s name. Like many of the other works written or edited by Dave Eggers, it seems to revel in not taking itself too seriously, while being utterly serious in how it’s put together and quietly proceeding to blow you away with its contents.

The Better of McSweeney’s Volume Two (apparently, there’s also The Best of McSweeney’s, published in two volumes by Penguin/Hamish Hamilton) brings together 22 stories in all, from issues 11-20 of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, a literary journal edited by Eggers. It’s a book you’ll want to look at as much as read, from the quirky cover photo by Shay Levy, to the simple yet striking black and white interior art from Michael Schall, to stories that touch on immigration troubles, terminal illness, rude sexual encounters, mental health issues, and other dramas unfolding in the navy, in space and even (literally) inside a woman’s body. All bitter subjects, true, but the way they’re handled — sensitive without being sentimental, and often with wry humor — makes them easy and even enjoyable to digest (hence, maybe, the gallbladder reference?)

I have several favorites, number one being A Child’s Book of Sickness and Death by Chris Adrian. It’s about a short-gutted girl who falls for a mediocre intern whom she sees as a kindred spirit, someone who understands the absurdity and horror of the hospital environment and humanity in general:
Ella’s strange puffy face is covered, her yellow eyes are covered, her bald spot is covered, her extra fingers are covered, her ostomies are covered, and the bitter, nose-tickling odor of urine that rises from her always is covered by the tremendous faculty of cuteness generated from some organ deep within her. Watching faces I can see how it’s working for her, and how it’s stopped working for me. Your organ fails, at some point — it fails for everybody, but for people like us it fails faster, having more to cover than just the natural ugliness of body and soul. One day you are more repulsive than attractive, and the good will of strangers is lost forever.
It’s the first time I’ve come across Adrian’s work, and he’s now definitely on my reading list.

Then, there’s The Medicine Man, by Kevin Moffett. No big plot, just a day in the life of a manic depressive who pays a visit to his pregnant sister Sally and her jerk of a husband Steve, but the story’s characterization and tone are spot on:
And five days later—you don’t want a sum-up of the five days which…the worst thing about low-highness is when you’re high and most suitored by the unpredicted joys, you don’t want anything to do with them, but when you’re low, you beg for the unpredicted joys, and then where are they, you going through the old Tupperware of family photographs again like a punishment, and I can’t call Sally because of Steve, alone and lonesome with nothing but time, nothing but time, and where are they? — I finally had my cafeteria poem: Mister, and if some blew on, for the time what?
Likewise, I enjoyed reading and re-reading parts of Adam Levin’s Hot Pink, a story about teenage punks:
I say, "Easy, Cojo," and this is when I learn something new about how to intimidate people. Because even though I say "Easy, Cojo," I’m not telling Cojo to take it easy. I’m not even talking to Cojo. I’m talking to the guy. When I say "Easy, Cojo," I’m telling the guy he’s right to be scared of my friend. And I’m also telling him that I got influence with my friend, and that means the guy should be scared of me, too.
Finally, there’s Philipp Meyer’s One Day This All Will Be Yours (about a son who goes back home to see his abusive father), which brings the collection to a satisfying close:
At eighteen you can look at your father and know you’ll never be anything like him. At thirty it’s a different story.
Aside from chewing on life’s bitter moments, a common thread that runs through most of the stories is morality, or the consequences of the decisions we make (often against our better judgment). I was duly and deliciously disturbed by the turnout of events, however expected, in Claire Light’s Pigs in Space, Shann Ray’s The Great Divide, and Tom Bissell’s God Lives in St. Petersburg.

There are also a couple of flash fiction and speculative pieces thrown in. One I found particularly innovative was Steven Millhauser’s A Precursor of the Cinema, written like a feature article, which tells the story of a forgotten artist and "failed" inventor whose realist paintings come to life.

As in any anthology, some of the pieces had less oomph than others — for instance, Alison Smith’s The Specialist, about a woman who was literally and figuratively empty inside, was quite fun to read but in the end left me a bit cold — but that’s a nitpick for an overall bar that’s set quite high. And while I’m not sure how this book compares to other compilations of McSweeney’s stories (such as volume one, or the "Best Of" series), I’d say that this is, overall, a good introduction to the literary journal, and one I’d recommend in a heartbeat.

Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau wants to explore the world by foot, pen and lens. Raised in Manila, she lived for a time in Los Angeles before moving to France. A Pushcart Prize nominee and 2008 Sean O’Faolain Short Story Competition finalist, she has stories in places like the Humanist and Southword.
Michelle's other Short Reviews: Matty Stansfield "Donut Holes: Sticky Pieces of Fictionalized Reality"

Stephen Shieber "Being Normal"

"Discovering a Comet and More Microfiction" by Various

Sefi Atta "News from Home"
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