The Better of McSweeney's Vol. 2
edited by Dave Eggers
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.
day you are more repulsive than attractive, and the good will of
strangers is lost forever."
Reviewed by Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau
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.
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
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:
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.
the first time I’ve come across Adrian’s work, and he’s now
definitely on my reading list.
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
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?
I enjoyed reading and re-reading parts of Adam Levin’s Hot
Pink, a story about teenage
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.
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:
eighteen you can look at your father and know you’ll never be
anything like him. At thirty it’s a different story.
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.
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
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.