Tuesday, November 28, 2006


A friend of mine gave me a copy of 'The Better of McSweeney's' as a late birthday present. It's a collection of short stories from the magazine's first ten issues. Most are interesting, some are quite good, but all of them demonstrate that definite but difficult to define sense of McSweeneyhood.

All McSweeney's stories start with the same sorts of sentences. They're not bad in themselves, but there's an uncomfortable feeling about them, as if they're the bare bones on which someone hopes to one day build a winning entry in the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest.

I was waiting for my lover - I would say boyfriend, but my boyfriend reminds me to say lover, not boyfriend, because we are in school and boyfriend sounds silly for a person in school - and it was late.

A woman, Josephine, read an ad in the advertiser one day.

Let me begin by saying that when I built the observatory I had no intention of looking into the past.

Since his first day in town the man had been looking for a nice girl to spend good times with, but none of the girls would have him.

and most pretentiously, from David Foster Wallace:

Then just as I was being released in late 1996 Mother won a small product liability settlement and used the money to promptly go get cosmetic surgery on the crow's feet around her eyes.

This is from a story entitled "Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders (VIII)". I can only hope that this is a subtle satire of wankerdom that I'm just too dim to grasp.

Many of these opening sentences read as if they belong in the middle of a larger narrative, one that has been chopped into bite-sized chunks and recycled as short stories. But all of them give the impression that these people aren't writing because they have a specific story to tell, but because they want to show how different and interesting they are. Ooh, I use the present continuous tense where a normal person would use the past simple. Ooh, I write as if you've just walked in on a conversation I was having. Ooh, I reject the stifling convention of paragraphs. Look upon my transgressive works, ye drone-like masses, and despair!

Sadly, if you puff yourself up like this, someone is bound to come along and puncture you. I can't look at McSweeney's without remembering Chris Onstad's verdict in his Achewood cartoon from 2003... in which he skewers McSweeney's as neatly and precisely as an experienced entomologist pinning a bug to a display panel.


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