The Best of McSweeney’s, Progress Report #2 (by Jill)

mcsweeney's cover


Have I mentioned before how long this book is? And how heavy? And how the cover without is dust jacket (which I always take off when I’m reading because I find them to be somewhat cumbersome and I need to keep those nice so no one can see how much I traumatize books sometimes in the process of reading them, especially this one which I think I’ve dropped about ten times) attracts cat hair and human hair like nothing I’ve ever seen? And how the names of all the authors who are in the anthology are embossed on the front cover but because I’ve been carrying it around for so long they’re starting to fade? And how David Foster Wallace is possibly the most difficult writer I’ve ever read? As bad as John Milton but also worse because he wrote in the late twentieth century and I should be able to understand him? I blame this paragraph on David Foster Wallace.

Since I went to Disneyland last week I’ve finished five stories in this anthology, three of which I finished today. Before I left I had read fifteen. I am not blaming this lack of progress on Disneyland. No, no. I was just tired at Disneyland and had no time or energy to read. I blame my lack of progress on David Foster Wallace, rest his soul, and the fifty-six page cluster-fuck that was his story, “Mr. Squishy,” from Volume 5 of McSweeny’s. Now, I own Infinite Jest, because I feel like I should, but there’s a good chance I’ll be reading that door stop in purgatory, because I don’t have time for a thousand pages of DFW’s fucking nonsense. I had never really read anything DFW had written before this week. I knew the basics of his story and the post-post-post modern niche he occupies in literature. I fancy myself one of those people who can hang with post-post-post modernism, but if this story is a good example of what that is, I really, really can’t. I muddled through this nonsense for three days and three nights. And just when I thought I was figuring out the point of it all, the damn thing just ended. Just stopped. He didn’t tell us if Terry Schmidt had actually injected the Felonies! cakes with ricin, he didn’t tell us why the guy was scaling the outside of the office building in downtown Chicago, and he didn’t tell us why in the hell most of the story was a long and brain-numbing look at the statistics advertising gurus use to determine if people do or do not like a product. And who was the narrator? What was he up to? And if you’re confused by what you just read, good. Because that’s how I feel after actually reading the whole story. I almost want to go back and reread it. There were a few blessed moments of clarity, like when I realized that Terry Schmidt was a crazy person, and that was why he was thinking about putting the Felonies! cakes in plastic wrap that was impervious to hypodermic needles. But the rest of the time I was just so confused. I really hate being confused. And that’s all the time I’m willing to spend on David Foster Wallace. Rest his soul.

My reward for finishing “Mr. Squishy” today was that I got to read Andrew Sean Greer’s wonderful essay, “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines,” about a trip he and his husband David took to the Michigan International Speedway for a NASCAR weekend. This trip was taken primarily for work (so Greer could write this essay), but his husband David is actually a lover of cars, so it was sort of a fun trip too. As I mentioned in my first post about this book, I was especially looking forward to this essay since my husband is a long-time NASCAR fan. It was not in the least what I expected, though I enjoyed it just as much as I thought I would. Hearing that a literary journal had published something about NASCAR written by an Ivy-league educated gay man, I expected mockery of NASCAR fans on the scale of Will Ferrell’s masterpiece, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, but with less toilet humor. But that’s not what I got. What I got was Greer admitting that when he sat down to write his essay he “did not feel, anymore, that I wanted to make fun of anyone we met, or anything we saw. I realized the only comical character was me. And the only hero was my husband (318).” I know NASCAR is ridiculed by many. I know I am among those who have ridiculed NASCAR. But Greer finds the beauty in it; he finds America in it. And America is ridiculed by millions around the world for the nonsense Americans revel in: cheap beer and cheap food and meddling in the affairs of other countries. But here it is, in all its glory: “America, how beautiful you are in multitudes! One hundred twenty thousand of you, fanned across the metal bleachers, wearing T-shirts boldly numbered with your favorite drivers, or in most cases, wearing no shirts at all, pale and tanned and sunburned in fascinating shadows of yesterday’s clothing…. How beautiful in families, gathered together with your headsets daisy-chained along the row, connected at last to dad’s bought-not-rented scanner, each with your legal six-pack cooler and transparent bag, with Buds and Bud Lights kept cold in cozies with those same glorious numbers—48! And 24! And 88…! How beautiful in Pit Row, earlier that morning, under the sweltering sun, as you gathered by the cars you loved, and wrote messages on the white concrete barriers…. How lovely standing on the track itself, shimmering in the heat, taking pictures of yourself against the vertiginous slope of the asphalt, the announcer’s tower, the climb of the stadium behind you in yellow and red. How glorious standing by the fence, waiting for each driver to arrive, as they always do, and sign your pit pass for you—for of all the sports, these stars are the most accessible to fans, the most touchable, the most real (340-1).” Greer’s essay is definitely funny: the poor guy gets stuck doing a beer bong, and they spend half the night looking for a place called “Sin City,” a land of supreme debauchery that’s always set up at the Michigan campground when their campground neighbors, Jennifer and Lucky, go to the races. Turns out “Sin City” isn’t there this year because the people who usually run it couldn’t afford tickets. Sad.   There’s teenage girls drinking adults under the table at one campground, and people drawing on a passed out gentleman’s t-shirt at another. All around, an amazing weekend in America.

I realize that I may have said some inflammatory things in this post: coming out strongly anti-David Foster Wallace and very pro-NASCAR. I don’t want to make anyone angry, truly I don’t, but here’s the thing: the NASCAR fans who Greer portrays in his article know who they are, and he showed me who they are. Greer said his two inspirations for this essay were Whitman and Wallace. The Whitman I picked up immediately. The first line of the essay is “Sing to me, America, of stock- car racing!” I thought that the Sing to me, America thing was in one of Whitman’s poems, but now I can’t find it on the internet anywhere; probably it’s just that he is known for his emphasis on American culture and wrote a bunch of poems with “Song” in the title. Now the Wallace thing? Having just read “Mr. Squishy,” and having been absolutely befuddled by it, I simply can’t see much to liken this essay to David Foster Wallace, except that Greer has a first person voice and a second person voice that he switches between throughout. I suspect I would need to read more Wallace to see the similarities, but I’m just not up for that right now.

And now I’m off to read some more and hopefully write some more sometime soon.

This entry was posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - short story anthologies, Fiction - short story collections, Reviews by Jill. Bookmark the permalink.

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