Sunday, October 30, 2005

43. McSweeney's Quarterly Concern No. 12

edited by Dave Eggers

McSweeney’s issues are usually fairly expensive, which is one of the reasons I don’t buy them on a regular basis. Not that they aren’t a fair trade for the dime, but I can’t rush out and by them each time a new one comes out. How wonderful was it, then, when I found this back issue for five bucks at Chicago Comics? Chicago Comics, how I love thee! Let me count the ways:

1) You are so pretty and organized and I never have to hunt around for books stacked under books in no particular order, instead spending my time browsing leisurely through the display racks. (Except for that one pile under the table of action figures, but I don’t often have need to go to that table anyway.)

2) You sell more than comics. You sell magazines. You sell the aforementioned action figures as well as lunch boxes and a Yellow Submarine lava lamp that I covet with my entire being. You offer several issues of McSweeney’s at once. And your comics selection kicks ass.

3) I know how most people act around girls in a comics store. You’re not like that. You’ve always helped me when I have a question and never looked derisively at my purchases. It’s all about the unconditional love.

But enough about one of the best bookshops ever. Let’s get to McSweeney’s No. 12.

There were some really quite awesome stories in this collection. Ben Ehrenreich’s “After the Disaster” tells the story of a couple who have survived some kind of world-shattering event that has left them some of the few people left alive. The two had no prior knowledge of each other, yet end up taking shelter in the same apartment and falling into something resembling a romantic relationship. The need they have for each other is more than carnal desire; it’s a desire for something more base, more human that drives them away from each other and back again. Saved from the Natural History Museum, a giant squid sits decomposing in their bathroom, immersed in a tub of alcohol. The weird animal is almost the cause of the couple’s split, but serves instead as a futile attempt to save something from their civilized world.

I also really enjoyed James Boice’s “Pregnant Girl Smoking,” a story centered on a moment when a pregnant girl asks our narrator, a passerby, for a light. The story grows out in circles, rippling around this one point in time when two random people interact. It covers the conception, the time leading up to the conception, the time past the birth, the subsequent careers and grandchildren and death beds on which the parents find themselves. “The rain stops, the world is wet, she pops out of the store with a baby in her belly and a cigarette in her mouth, hair just there, unkempt, hanging in her face, she kind of brushes it aside as she asks a stranger for a light. Girl lays on her back on a basement floor with a big eager kid on top of her, grunting into her shoulder, a couple zits on his back, a promo for a new Fox show that she probably won’t watch on the TV, six months later she’s looking for a light for her cigarette in front of the maternity store.” And so the story continues, expressing the shock, disgust, and wonder at this girl and the actions that led to this moment where she asks stranger to light her cigarette. I’ve said before that I generally dislike experimental writing, but every so often I find a story, like this one, where the author’s command of his words allows for such experimentation to be satisfyingly effective.

Included in this issue is a collection of stories written in twenty minutes from such authors as Myla Goldberg, Douglas Coupland, and J. Robert Lennon. I expected these stories to be somewhat dispensable, because how much can you create in just twenty minutes? But I was surprised to find some really well-written pieces here. Lennon’s untitled piece describes, in simple words, the course of two lives. Aimee Bender writes of a Medusa-like woman who has snakes for hair. Peter Orner describes a class of young students who see their pretty teacher falter for the first time. They’re really short stories, written in a short period of time, but they want for nothing when it comes to meaning.

That’s the great thing about a McSweeney’s. And Chicago Comics, for that matter. You can go into it not expecting much and come out having been witness to some amazing work.


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