Now Them’s Good Stories

Please ignore anything you may have read in the critical press about McSweeney's issue #10, a.k.a. McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thilling Tales. Most of the criticism has been, well, critical, and most of the critical criticism has been off the mark. Most of the stories are at least good, but a few are brilliant.

Certain themes dance through the whole volume: alternate history, George Armstrong Custer, post-9/11 fears of terrorism, rebellion, mountain-climbing, and the traces of themselves that parents give their children. I doubt very much that the authors consulted with each other, so I suppose you could treat the Treasury as a kind of finger on the pulse of the American imagination.

Of special note is Rick Moody's "The Albertine Notes." It's a story about post-apocalyptic drug addiction, and yet it's so much more than that--because the drug in question, Albertine, affects the memory. The possibilities for Memento-esque manipulation of the reader's knowledge are many, and Moody runs with them. By the end, my jaw was more or less on the floor.

The story also confirms my belief that Moody is an incredible prose stylist. The writing in "The Albertine Notes" is sometimes clipped and sometimes glossolalic, but it's always closely matched to the plot. And, as usual, Moody throws off perfect phrases as though without effort:

What's memory? Memory's the groove. It's the all-stars laying down their groove, and it's you dancing, chasing the desperations of the heart, chasing something that's so gone, so ephemeral you know it only by its traces, how a certain plucked guitar string summons the thundering centuries, how a taste of fresh cherries calls up the indolent romancers on antebellum porches, all these stories rolling. Memory is the groove, the lie, the story you never get right, the better place. Memory is the bitch, the shame factory, the curse and the consolation.

Also of note:

  • Michael Chabon's "The Martian Agent," although wonderfully clever, turns out to be only the first installment of what is clearly a much longer work. I appreciate that the adventure serial is a genre story, but I'd rather have seen it as a standalone novel.
  • Dave Eggers' "Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly" is subtle, beautifully paced, and not at all twee. Remarkably enough, it puts Harlan Ellison's mountain-climbing story to shame.
  • Kelly Link has a disturbed imagination. "Catskin" will warp your mind but good.
  • Neil Gaiman, Nick Hornby, and Elmore Leonard are all writers with good ears for the style and the slang of their favored genres; they provide stories that are marvelously written.

And while I'm praising McSweeney's, let me also say I'm looking forward to Unused DVD Audio Commentaries, by Jeff Alexander and Tom Bissell. I hope the rest of the commentaries are as sly as the one of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky discussing The Fellowship of the Ring.