Monday, August 17, 2009

McSweeney’s 31

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 17.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned some ebullient first impressions of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern 31. Today is a good time to look at its innards.

McSweeney’s 31 (titled Vikings, Monks, Philosophers, Whores: Old Forms, Unearthed) set out with an interesting idea: to produce contemporary versions of dead or feeble genres. They picked nine: two of them are types of poetry (Malaysian pantoum, Japanese senryū), two are dialogues (European whore dialogue, Socratic dialogue), and the rest are prose forms (Icelandic legendary sagas, Chinese biji, Spanish nivola, Anglo-American Graustarkian romance, medieval European consuetudinary). None of these genres is what you would call a short story. In my defense, in order to slip this post fairly into the short story month, McSweeney’s 31 does come with a separate “summertime sampler” that includes three excerpts from novels that can pass as short stories. (I may talk about them in a later post.) Also, some of the pieces do resemble short stories enough to justify this post.

Each incursion into a genre is laid out like this: you get a page with a brief overview of the genre (life span, natural habitat, practitioners, characteristics, and a blurb), then you find a short sample of a piece originally written in that genre (Nicolas Chorier’s 1660 A Dialogue Between a Married Lady and a Maid, say), and then you get the contemporary version. As you read the commissioned revival, there are notes on the margins, printed in red, which show you how the author is fitting the piece in the genre’s conventions (for example, the note will tell us that lists are typical of biji). There are also some explanations (for instance, what the “blood eagle” way of execution was among Vikings), and some plain, old-fashioned footnotes (this is an allusion to such-and-such character in such-and-such novel). These notes interested me at first, but they quickly became annoying. Perhaps this is what the editors were trying to do, to parody the footnoting of academic publications. They seemed to aim for at least one on each page, so at times they made the strangest connections, just to say something. I ended up reading a piece’s complete notes in one go, before turning to the literary text itself.

Now, I thought the contemporary pieces worked best when they were, in fact, set in our time, or thereabouts. I was not enthusiastic about Will Sheff’s “Black Metal Circle Saga,” littered with ancient characters and names, and set in the olden times of sagas. In Sheff’s defense, he was writing an Icelandic saga, and Icelandic sagas are about the past. I still think he could’ve pulled off something very interesting, set in today’s world.

Under the same heading, and despite its clever moments and insights, David Thomson’s Socratic dialogue (“After Citizen Kane”) wasn’t my cup of tea. There’s this drawn-out conversation about Wells’s Citizen Kane, involving Kafka, Susan Sontag, Virginia Woolf, and others, and set in a hazy afterlife. I found more sound bites than deft arguments (which would’ve been truer to the genre). Another piece that takes place in a strange setting and that I found ingenious (but really boring) was Shelley Jackson’s “Consetudinary of the Word Church.” It’s about a school that teaches people how to communicate with the dead. The text describes a vast array of odd techniques in detail. The piece was allegedly written by someone from the school, and the frequent ironic language used thus seemed out of place.

Mary Miller’s whore dialogue was fun and humorous. The lively repartee worked well, and the sex talk was candid without being distasteful. Douglas Coupland put together an interesting biji called “Survivor,” a funny take on the show Survivor. During the production of the show, something tragic happens that puts everything in a new and dismal context (the narrator doesn’t lose his fast-paced, sarcastic tone, though). Coupland’s piece has a flippant ominousness that reminded me of this diary that I’ve already recommended and that was published in BANR 2008. However, some parts of “Survivor” were funnier and more effective than others, and some shearing would’ve helped the piece greatly.

Coupland’s “Survivor” shares with Joyce Williams’s nivola (“Saved”) a clever thematic choice: since the magazine has set about saving dead or moribund genres, it’s smart that both of them refer to surviving or keeping things alive. (Jackson’s consuetudinary also plays with these themes. Aside from the obvious, general allusion to the dead, there are specific lines like these: “Reading takes place in the past [p. 142]; writing is a “simple form of travel in the lands of the dead” [p. 143].) In Williams’s nivola, an old environmentalist called Snow is invited to deliver a conference in an event organized to honor one Chester Owen. However, Chester Owen is too sick to make it to the event. Death roams around this piece in several ways: the death of nature, the imminent death of Chester Owen, the death of a little girl whose mother keeps showing her picture to people. There’s a great line about the dead girl’s pictures: “Poor little creature, Snow thought, placed on the poor altar of brief appraisals, the brief appraisals of strangers, year after year” (p. 69). Something along these lines may be said about the dead genres rescued, briefly, by McSweeney’s 31. All of this is clever. But I didn’t like Williams’s nivola that much. Perhaps it’s the genre itself, which isn’t such a good fertilizer for talent: exceedingly existential, roaming, detached.

My favorite piece was an adventure story, in the genre of the Graustarkian romance. Graustark was a fictitious Eastern European country created by an American writer around the beginning of the twentieth century. Romance and adventure took place in Graustark’s mysterious and hearty setting. John Brandon does something interesting with the revival piece “Feasts and Villains,” which revolves around an island called Graystork, nominally ruled by Canada. One interloper is trying to ruin Graystork’s traditions, and people are strangely pulled in to help restore order. The island itself prepares people for what they’re supposed to do (“‘Graystork, as I understand it, chooses people’”; “‘No one gets to Graystork easily. It’s like this for everyone’” [p. 121]). The story is fun, and the plot is captivating (enough, in fact, to make me want to read Brandon’s novel). Even then, the story could do without a completely gratuitous sex scene in the first chapter, whose only purpose seems to be to catch people’s attention (using that apparently fail-safe way of turning sex into a subject).

Finally, some of the poetry was good, especially a few of the pantoums that dazzled me with their inventive transformations of repeated lines. Pantoums are all about controlled repetition, and some authors pulled it off masterfully.


  1. Oíste, muy bonitos el encabezado y la ilustración de la última entrada. Le dan mucha vida al blog.