Michael Chabon, Thrilling!

I'm not clear, honestly, just how to take the title of this volume: McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales!, which has no exclamation mark but (if there were justice in the world) really should. Everything Eggers, of course, is ironic without being, you know, iRONic, and you're supposed to feel dumb if you can't find another name for it, but ... it's self-ironizing nostalgia whose structure is intended to protect the writer/lover from accusations of both empty ironizing and undue genuineness.

Which is fine, I guess. It's fun, and games make the world worth playing, if you will.

Where was I?

Right. Reviewing Michael Chabon's edited volume of McSweeney's Quarterly, from 2002, of avowedly genre short stories, with a distinctly genius introduction about contemporary fiction.

Someone recently pointed me toward George Orwell's thoughts on book reviews, in which he argues against spending 600 words on every volume, because while a few books deserve much more than that, the majority barely require notice be taken of them. Now, I really enjoyed the Mammoth Treasury, and not just because of its conversation-starting title and cover: some of the stories flat-out rocked. However, others ... filled their pages admirably. With that in mind, here's a sequence of capsule reviews of the volume's short stories.

  1. Jim Shepard, "Tedford and the Megalodon": a brilliant start, introducing the themes of (a) obsession and (b) nature's opacity, in the form of an unknown species of giant shark
  2. Glen David Gold, "The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter": circus fiction, featuring elephants, vengeance, and clowning -- good stuff
  3. Dan Chaon, "The Bees": horror via the circularities of time -- meh
  4. Kelly Link, "Catskin": fantasy plus the collective unconscious, but otherwise WTF, in the bad way
  5. Elmore Leonard, "How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman": all kinds of awesome fun, with riffs on racism, being A Product of One's Time, and odd characters
  6. Carol Emshwiller, "The General": SF or alt history, about an immigrant general turned mutineer who's hunted for his crimes -- a highlight of the volume, for me, even if I felt like I'd read it before
  7. Neil Gaiman, "Closing Time": the best pure ghost story of the volume, an absolute classic that's been steeped thoroughly enough in this hoary genre to seem both ancient and new
  8. Nick Hornby, "Otherwise Pandemonium": of which I was of two minds, both loving the concept and setting (both of which need to surprise you), but far from enamoured of the narrator (who I found tiresome)
  9. Stephen King, "The Tale of Gray Dick": another reason that Stephen King should just go to hell already and leave me alone, thank you very much, since I haven't forgiven him for the execrable, book-destroying trick ending of Under the Dome
  10. Michael Crichton, "Blood Doesn't Come Out": hard-boiled detective fiction like they've given up writing now, but with an ending that moves unhelpfully outside genre expectations
  11. Laurie King, "Weaving the Dark": a story that for me didn't at all fit with the others, but is nonetheless a really impressive work about a woman progressing toward blindness who still sees some things clearly
  12. Chris Offutt, "Chuck's Bucket": exactly the kind of thing that belongs in this volume, complete with time travel, madcap inventors, and metafiction
  13. Dave Eggers, "Down the Mountain Coming Down Slowly": explorer fiction, if I had to guess its genre, but it's a wonderful story about the ignorant climbing of Kilimanjaro, and one climber's coming to social awareness
  14. Michael Moorcock, "The Case of the Nazi Canary:" Hitler! unspeakable sexual peccadilloes! zeppelins! alternate history!
  15. Aimee Bender, "The Case of the Salt and Pepper Shakers": chilling little noir detective action, combined with the macabre
  16. Sherman Alexie, "Ghost Dance": let me use capitals, so there's no mistake about what I mean -- HOLY SHIT, WORTH THE PRICE OF ADMISSION ALL ON ITS BLOODY, ANTI-COLONIALIST, ZOMBIE-LOVING OWN
  17. Harlan Ellison, "Goodbye to All That": meh, though some will love it
  18. Karen Joy Fowler, "Private Grave 9": an awkward fit, though interesting enough, if I might damn the story with faint praise
  19. Rick Moody, "The Albertine Notes": slow to get going, but overall the second-best story in the collection behind Alexie's, and fricking awesome in so VERY many ways
  20. Michael Chabon, "The Planetary Agent, a Martian Romance": really a fun, Eggersy kind of story about a North America which never left Britain's orbit via revolution, and in which Custer died not at the Little Bighorn but in an attempt to revive the 1776 Revolution, but with zeppelins and hangings.

All of which means ... awesomeness, but in more pages than it should have been. And some readers are harsher than I am.


Fraze said…
It's not as fun when I agree with you.

Bla bla bla, I agree with what you're saying, bla bla bla, I liked it too, bla bla bla, that catskin story was a waste of printers ink.

I do think that when it comes to the fun games that you enjoy so much, self-ironizing the ironic irony of titles, you're in danger of disappearing up your own fractal. But that's your thing, and I love you as you are. Just don't call me for help when you find yourself staring down at your own head some day from a black hole you accidentally ironized into existence.

But in general, and in most specifics, yeah, exactly!. The book is like one of those charcuterie plates that used to be called something else when I was a kid: we won't all like the same morsels, but we both love the collective, and you can have my prawns if I eat your prosciutto.

Except: the first story, Gentleman-Adventurer Meets His End in the Vasty Depths of Nature, was an odd choice to go first.

Or maybe not odd. Maybe it's supposed to point out the self-ironizing auto-eroticism wink and nod of the whole collection — ha, ha, you thought it was an adventure story, so we killed him, the end!. I don't know. But it left a sour taste in my mouth.

The circus story washed that away, and was a much more subtle and nuanced blend of substance and sophistication, so that I wound up feeling a lot better after I'd finished that one.

But then the bees story was bland and mean-spirited, and the stupid catskin story? With essences of the Divine Feminine Principle? That nearly got the whole thing sent back right there.

After that, yes awesome, with some great flavours. I'm glad I persevered.

But what an odd beginning to the book. Self-defeating almost. Could be that irony thing again.
richard said…
Now, are you accusing me ironically of loving self-ironizing irony? Or ironically accusing me of same, or of something else?

I think I prefer the idea or self-ironizing irony a lot more than I do the thing in itself, but maybe (a) you already think so, or (b) you really don't think so, or (c) I'm wrong about my preferring that, or (d) refrigerator.

Otherwise, yeah. Some cool stuff, some that wasn't: generally fun, but overall a long way from thrilling.
Fraze said…
I think I'm accusing you, straightforwardly, of being too willing to follow the endless loop of recursive irony down the rabbit-hole.

I like it somewhat when people are ironic. I can also get it when people are ironic about irony — but it feels like a fragile structure built on sand, and my instinct is to move on and return to sincerity.

Writing in a wry tone about self-ironizing is approaching pretty close to a third level of irony, which I don't think is likely to be satisfying. At all.

Back to the tome:
As I read more stories in the collection I am more and more puzzled about the thread holding them together. Maybe I should just give up on that, too?
richard said…
I'm willing to defend multi-layered exercises in irony, I'll agree with you there -- but most often I don't genuinely like them even if I'm defending them, because they're too clever by half, and of the "seemed like a good idea at the time" quality.

Which for some reason always reminds me of the long-ago Seattle band Young Fresh Fellows, but that's another story.

There's no thread to this volume. Mostly they're meant to savour of "genre fiction," so they're mostly examples of genre fiction that a literary writer might like, which is to say they're not really genre fiction at all. Otherwise -- no thread that I can see.
Fraze on mobile said…
COULD'VE been quite a good thread. Genre-type fiction but with sufficient literary merit to satisfy the sophisticated crowd.

You know, like when you go to a restaurant and get those little mini-hamburgers made from kobe beef and free-range buns.

I guess there just wasn't enough to fill a volume?
richard said…
Yeah, we should definitely go back to Clive's one of these months....

Most of the McSweeney's adventures show the same unevenness, or maybe the same let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom aesthetic. I don't think I've ever enjoyed every item in a single McSweeney's issue yet, and that's really what this book is: deliberately potpourri, or something.

Because the other option is that Chabon's an enthusiastic reader but not a great editor. Possible, but I'd rather think he was better than me.

Popular Posts