Tuesday 16 December 2008

McSweeney’s 22, ed. Dave Eggers

This issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern contains three entirely separate books, bound into one magnetic cover by the metal strips in their spines. Police officers may take a dim view of literary types who go out into the night looking for trouble with one of these books concealed in their sleeves; prison librarians should ensure that this McSweeney’s is absent from their collections.

The idea behind From the Notebook: the Unwritten Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald is a brilliant one: to complete the stories suggested by that author’s notes. (I have a similar notebook of unused ideas, if the same writers fancy helping me out!) Not having read any Fitzgerald, apart from The Great Gatsby a long, long time ago, it’s hard for me to know how far the writers have tried to emulate his style, but I know that they haven’t necessarily tried to recreate the exact stories FSF would have written, since some are set in the present day. It was a very stimulating read, and many of the stories were very good indeed.

The State of Constraint: New Work from Oulipo was my favourite of these three books. Playful, silly and intellectual in a way that typifies some of my favourite French writers, the Oulipo group labour to create works of literature under self-imposed restrictions. Some of it is daft, some of it is serious, but all of it is thought-provoking. Most enjoyable is the binary story by Paul Fournel (who also provides the introduction), if only because of the pleasure of finding a choose-your-own-adventure story in the pages of McSweeney’s.

The Poetry Chains of Dominic Luxford was an eye-opener for me. I hadn’t been aware previously of the wide range of modern poetry. I’ve said before (in a sort-of-review of GUD #0) that I don’t really get poetry, and I won’t pretend that I’ve quite got it yet, but this book helped me make a little bit of progress. Much of this poetry resembles a short story that’s been auto-summarised in Word – everything inessential boiled away, to leave a kernel of… well, on the whole, a kernel of pain. It’s a pretty depressing volume, so don’t read it if you’re having a bad day. Of the poets here, I’m most likely to look for more work by Patrick Lawler and Sarah Lindsay, mainly because the subject matter of their poems interested me more than the relationship stuff of the rest. But there were another ten or twenty poets whose poems interested me enough to make me look them up in the contributors section. I read most of the volume while waiting to collect my daughter from school, which must have made me look terribly intellectual (or exceptionally pretentious).

Reading McSweeney’s is always good for my vanity: it makes me feel that I’m much cleverer and more literary than I really am. Like buying books from the Folio Society (but at a much more reasonable price) it makes me feel to some extent that I’m becoming the person I wanted to be. This was one of their most educational and improving issues to date. And did I mention it’s magnetic?

McSweeney’s 22, Dave Eggers (ed.), McSweeney’s, hb/3xpb, 480pp.

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