Final Thoughts (for now) on The Best of McSweeney’s (by Jill)

mcsweeney's cover

I just checked to see how long it took me to finish this book and essentially I spent the entire month of February with this lovely anthology. I was surprised; because usually when I spend this long on one book I’m pretty darn irritated by the end. But not this time. For a couple reasons. First, February is a short month. It’s not like I spent all of, say, December on it. But more importantly, I actually enjoyed this book a lot. I think that the constant variety in subject and author made it so I never did get sick of carrying it around. And that’s quite a feat: this book is really awkward.

I could spend the better part of two months writing about every single story, essay, memoir, and cartoon in this volume, but I think no one would visit our blog again if I did that. And yes, some stuff was better than others, and yes, at times I couldn’t help but be annoyed at how thick the pages are, because that just makes the book seem that much longer (and heavier). I read a bunch of new authors, and may have found a few new favorites. I am having a hard time not going to and subscribing to Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern right this minute, that’s how much I enjoyed The Best of McSweeney’s.

Overall, I found the fiction to be superior to the nonfiction, and definitely superior to the few essays that were present. It’s entirely possible that when I read the essays I was not in the correct frame of mind (what I actually mean is I was reading them five minutes before I fell asleep in bed) to appreciate them. There were some poems as well, of an old style, called a pantoum. It’s a fairly complicated, with repeated lines and variable rhyme schemes in each stanza. I had a hard time with these, likely because I haven’t really read poetry in years and I’m really out of practice.

There were also a few “Twenty Minute Stories” mixed in. Famous writers set a timer an only work on a story for about twenty minutes and then they send in their products. One is a to-do list by Jennifer Egan that entails what a soccer mom thinks about. It’s awesome. One section is “Investigate poisons.” And the last one is, “Remember, NO ONE CAN SEE YOUR THOUGHTS.” There’s also a brief screenplay with Neanderthal men as characters having some sort of business meeting about whether or not fire will be a beneficial commodity for the cave. That one was sort of funny.

There are a couple of stories I wanted to mention specifically. The first is one by Jonathan Ames, called “Bored to Death.” It’s about a writer named, coincidentally, Jonathan Ames, who is between writing jobs, and decides to post an ad on Craig’s List as a freelance private investigator. This story was the basis for a TV series on HBO starring Jonathan Schwartzman from a few years ago. I watched a few episodes of the show, and found it somewhat entertaining, but not entertaining enough to sit and watch more than a couple episodes. And that was back when I did a lot of sitting and watching TV. I remember the series Bored to Death being quirky and noir and sort of funny. This short story was noir. Like noir as midnight on a deserted, foggy country road with a creepy graveyard and there are strange animal noises coming from somewhere ahead of you. That being said, I found the mystery/suspense story gripping and would definitely read more by Ames down the line.

Another story that I think is worth mentioning is “Four Institutional Monologues,” by George Saunders. I haven’t read much by Saunders, though I own three or four of his short story collections. I think I’ve read another of his short stories in the Ecco Anthology I read a couple of years ago, and I remember liking it, but thinking it was kind of weird. And that’s exactly how I feel about this story. The story is divided up into four chapters. The first is an email written by a mid-level manager to his staff about how everyone needs to be more enthusiastic and hit their sales goals and all that nonsense. The second was essentially written in a language other than the English that I know. It’s a proposal for incorporating something called a “Fenlen Space” into an office building. I never did figure out what such a space was, or why it was needed, besides to confuse me. The third is a semi-threatening email from one department to another department requesting that members of the second department stop calling members of the first department derogatory names. And the last one is probably the most troubling, and I wonder if it’s somehow related to the “Fenlen Space” discussion. It’s a scientific paper detailing a toxicity study performed in monkeys. It’s never said what exactly they’re testing, only that it’s universally fatal with the exception of one monkey (and I kept having visions of The Planet of the Apes as the one mutant monkey continued to live while all the other monkeys were writhing in pain and dying of kidney failure), who continues to live despite increasing doses of whatever toxin they are testing. It was kind of upsetting, actually. This story didn’t annoy me like David Foster Wallace’s one that I talked about last time. Both stories are absurd and random and weird, but Saunders didn’t seem to be trying to confuse his readers like Wallace was. I do want to read more George Saunders, but I now know I can’t do it when I’m not a hundred percent involved in reading and concentrating.

One last story, and I’ll stop. But I suspect I’ll be talking about The Best of McSweeney’s more in March because Bethany and I are going to do a post-a-day challenge again this year and short stories are good for post-a-day challenges! Clancy Martin’s “How to Sell” takes place in the shady world of jewelry salespeople in Texas. The narrator, interestingly named Clancy Martin (I don’t like it when people do this. Why not come up with a new name? What are you trying to say by giving your protagonist your full name? Is this a memoir? Based on true events? What? Or are you being unkind to your readers?) goes into the jewelry business with his brother Baron, after years of selling Kirby vacuums. Clancy is a good vacuum salesman, but I’m not clear how good a jeweler he is. But his brother is a terrible businessman, though a good jeweler. I learned about Chapter 7 vs. Chapter 11 bankruptcies while reading this book. There is also a female character whose name is Emily, but everyone calls her The Polak. She is even shadier than the Martin brothers, but is an interesting character.

What I do love about these stories, all of them, is that no matter how weird, they do manage to encapsulate a little world into twenty pages or less. I never knew how good short stories could be until recently. In high school whenever we read a short story I was like, “Why can’t we be reading real books?? Short stories are for little kids!” Maybe if we had gotten to read short stories like the ones in The Best of McSweeney’s, or that Ecco Anthology, I wouldn’t have minded as much.

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

1 Response to Final Thoughts (for now) on The Best of McSweeney’s (by Jill)

  1. bedstrom says:

    Short stories are actually harder to teach than novels because kids aren’t sophisticated enough to do the detail work they require. With any work of literature (but some more than others), there’s that disorienting moment when you are getting used to the “world” of the story or novel and have to balance all kinds of unknowns in your head until you figure out what’s what. This experience is hard for kids. They decide they “don’t get it” and stop trying. As a teacher I did a ton to help kids get through this uncertainty. If you teach novels, you only have to go through this initial confusion once a month or so. If you teach short stories, every day is a new struggle.

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