Edited by Michael Chabon
I picked this up at the same time as I did McSweeney’s 9, thinking it was a McSweeney’s spinoff or one-shot like the Hornby music thingy. It’s a stunt book, guest edited by the reigning high priest of high-and-low-brow, the Pulitzer-prize-winning Spider-man scribe (HA! that was fun to write) Michael Chabon, and it delivers exactly what it promises: McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. Out in March (published, apparently as a gift to me, on my birthday), I just now completed the book. I read it as I once did Analog and Fantasy and Science Fiction – over many short sittings, generally a story at a time, and had a great time. The book collects a genuinely impressive array of literary stars and up-and-comers with grizzled vets of genre writing.
Chabon welcomes readers in an agreeably reactionary introduction in which he effectively points out that the fashionably reflective, quiet, “moment of truth” short story has driven “plot” out of respectable literary journeyman’s bag of tricks. While the veracity of this claim is disputable, the essay is also a recognizable permutation of the genre writer’s defensive frustration with the ghettoization of American letters. Chabon proposes to rectify the matter by guest-editing an issue of McSweeney’s in which Each! Story! Will! Thrill! And! Amaze! As you might have guessed, this is that book.
One odd feature of the publication is the large number of mountain-climbing stories – apparently, if contributors couldn’t bring themselves write a real genre piece, a mountain-climbing story would do. I felt, in general, that these attempts at Outside-style adventure travel writing fell flat. This is possibly because I have a prejudice against adventure travel writing in general, a distaste which goes back to my dislike for Hemingway, so I shall refrain from reviewing or citing any of the mountaineering pieces.
(UPDATE: Upon reflection, it may be that I’m mischaracterizing these pieces – at least two of them concern the neocolonial power relations inherent in guided adventure-travel getaways, rather than the testosterone-and-landscape material I associate with the likes of Jon Krakauer.)
The balance of the stories (in my mind, about two-thirds of the book) are a mix of genre writing, from straight-ahead science fiction to a delightful cops-and-robbers piece set in 1930’s Oklahoma from the well-tempered pen of Ellmore Leonard. Neil Gaiman contributes a Gaimanesque memoir –cum-ghost story, Michael Moorcock weighs in with one of his yummy pastiches on prewar juvenilia, and Stephen King bangs out a deft post-apocalyptic tale which forcefully reminds one what a subtle writer he can be.
Moorcock’s piece offers the tale of the metatemporal detective Sir Seaton Begg‘s well-known intervention in the Nazi Party’s Night of the Long Knives. It should be noted that Moorcock is far too crafty to even hint that he’s writing about actual historical events, or that in his version, Himmler dies rather than the bumbling brownshirts.
I have always loved King’s short stories much more than his unutterably cruel and sadistic novels – I am always amazed that my fellow Americans take pleasure in these extended meditations on the nature and practice of cruelty and torture. You are all bad people, and should be ashamed of yourselves. Does your mother know you read that stuff? King’s a saint, though, and writes like an angel when he’s keeping to word-count.
So far so good, eh? It’s sweet pleasure itself to read these people’s work in conjunction with other, more literarily conventional writers’ works, and in certain cases, where the non-genre folks put aside the fear or distaste or disinterest that has kept them out of the pool previously, they rise to giddy heights on the shock of the fireworks.
Predominant among these stories is Chuck’s Bucket, a hilarious, beautifully pomo sf story by Chris Offutt, son of Andrew Offutt, a prolific fantasy and sf author. In the tale, a blocked writer named, unaccountably, Chris Offutt, meets an academic who’s perfecting a time machine, and uses the time machine to get sufficiently unblocked that he can turn in his assignment for a magazine, McSweeney’s, assigned by the scalawag and generally more-successful author Michael Chabon to the somewhat sad-sack Offutt. The story struck me as so funny, and is so knowingly attuned to the conventions of the hack stories that certainly do populate the pages of many’s the pulp magazine, that it sort of took flight, managing to speak emotional truths at the same time as it took a burlesque turn on the stage of my mind.
Chabon himself contributes a pastiche, The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance. It’s an alternate-history sf tale set in Victorian Colonial Louisiana in the aftermath of the failed Ohio Rebellion of 1896. Interestingly, the story is a straight homage to none other than Michael Moorcock’s wonderful alternate-history Warlord of the Air series. Chabon does a great job on the too-short tale, which is effectively an origin story, setting the stage for full-blown serials should Chabon find himself suddenly out of work and in need of penny-a-word pickup gigs. It’s of particular literary interest to read Chabon’s work after the Moorcock piece. I came away from Chabon’s story confirmed in my appreciation for his work, and hope he takes the time to proceed directly into straight-up sf for a time. I could tell he read the right stuff when he was kid the first time I laid eyes on Kavalier and Klay.
However, and in some ways this is not surprising, the most original of the stories is by hometown hero Sherman Alexie. He turns in a brief zombie story called Ghost Dance. In it he imagines the shambling bodies of Custer’s long-dead Seventh Calvary rising from the graves at Little Big Horn. Alexie’s unique voice delivers the story with both greater brutality than is usual either in his writing or in horror generally, and manages to both respect and expand the boundaries of the genre he’s working in. At the same time the story packs an unmistakable rhetorical punch, which derives directly from the specific genre elements he employs. It’s quite a piece.
A brief aside about Alexie’s work – his stuff seems to me to be growing stronger with each story I read, and his stuff was pretty good to begin with. It’s getting to the point that I’ll be scouring for everything he’s ever written quite soon, I suspect.
So, in short, dear hearts, if you cleave to your Cheever, you might feel free to take a pass on this. But if you share the fine, manly tastes of the brighter classes among us, and savor the ozone tang of a laser-scored orbital liner on the tarmac after the dawn run from Istanbul, you’ll find McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales a suitably improving and civic-minded read.
From the reading deck, this is your Literary Commander, signing off.