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A Review of McSweeney's Issue 32

mcsweeneys32.jpg For anyone not already familiar with it, Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern is a (roughly) quarterly series of books that compile works of literature from a number of distinct authors in the style of a literary journal. The magazine is spear headed by Dave Eggers, and was originally intended as a journal in which authors could submit works that had been rejected for publication elsewhere, but over time interest and prestige have changed this philosophy and the magazine now serves as a revue of works that can potentially be only submitted to McSweeney's, or in other cases works that have been published elsewhere. Each issue will often have some unifying theme that ties it together, and past themes have included stories set in the near future, stories from Norwegian authors, and even a faux newspaper complete with a comics section.

Issue 32 is a themed issue that focuses on stories while still carefully working in the theme in a fantastic and open ended manner that allows the stories to develop organically rather than confining them to a narrow viewpoint as can happen in themed issues (not that this is always a problem). The subtitle of this issue is “2024 AD”, and as such a title would suggest all the stories in this anthology take place in the not too distant future. The future depicted therein is not necessarily wholly bleak, though many authors choose to interpret it in that way. The stories are all meant to be in an accessible future that isn't bogged down by science fiction conventions of flying cars or interplanetary travel. Innovations and disasters that may arise in these books instead focus on generally accessible technologies or calamities, with global warming and human desctruction of the environment making appearances in several of the works compiled herein.

The Stories

Memory Wall

This story by Anthony Doerr opens this issue on a very high note that is difficult to top. The story takes place in South Africa in the near future, and is one of only a handful of tales in the collection that doesn't focus on a pessimistic outlook for the future. Instead, it is centered around a particular technology that has been developed which allows its users to extract and physically record their memories on cartridges that they may then play back at any time they choose thereby allowing them to relive any time in their life. The main character is an ailing woman with dementia whose life is presented as a series of disjointed memory cartridges being viewed by a young boy that has been hired to locate and steal a particular memory from this woman, as it may hold the key to unlocking a great fortune for his employers. Through the eyes of this boy and other people in Alma's life, we gain insight both into her past and into the state of life in South Africa where cultural divides result in a massive gap in wealth between the very rich and the very poor.

The seamless integration of a stream of memories with the hunt for a specific memory makes this story both unmistakably human and remarkably suspenseful at the same time and as a result it can be quite hard to put down. Likewise, the integration of the memory technology into the story provides an integral plot device that provides and organic means to gain a retrospective on a character's life without extensive narration. On the whole this story is one of the most excellent stories offered up in any issue of McSweeney's, and should not be missed by anyone that is intrigued by the future or by how our own memories define who we are and how we are viewed by others.

Rating: 10/10

Raw Water

This story by Wells Tower takes place in the dessert of Arizona 25 years in the future. A project to try to bring tourism to the area had attempted to construct a giant inland lake in order to build expensive beachfront properties and revitalize the local economy, and the effort had gotten off to a good start resulting in the construction of many luxurious houses in an area that had previously been fairly barren. Over time, however, the project failed when the lake began to sap various salts from the desert sands underneath it, producing a saline mixture that attracted halophilic microbes (archaea, most likely) that are able to live in salty water that few animals can effectively live in. These microbes have turned the lake red and it begins to recede, and with it so does the tourism industry leaving posh houses along a poisoned lake with only a skeleton of a town left to tend to them.

The story follows a family that has newly moved to the remains of this venture in an effort to research the water and the effects it might be having on the people around them. Beyond its broad premise, the story does not follow the development of any post apocalyptic themes or the unfolding of a new disaster. Instead it observes the interaction between this new family and the town's remaining residents who prove to be quite cryptic in their actions, likely as a result of the fact that they live by, swim in, and eat food from the lake filled with raw water although it is never conclusively demonstrated that it is the effect of the lake. The husband of the new family begins to devolve into a simian individual who acts on base instincts akin to many to the other members of the town resulting in a story that can at times be confusing and even uncomfortable to observe. On the whole Raw Water relies on an interesting premise to focus on the fine line between humanity and animal instincts, and it does so in an interesting manner, although the style of narration can at times be difficult to penetrate.

Rating: 6.5/10

Eight Wonder

This story by Chris Bachelder takes a rather depressing but not out of the question glimpse into the near future. It follows an electrician and the people he interacts with as they live in a huge dome that is the wreckage of an old sports stadium after some uncertain calamity has caused the world to flood, leaving the dome's inhabitants stranded on the upper levels of the monumental structure. This stadium is the eponymous eighth wonder of the world, and its occupants need to find ways to productively interact and to keep the shreds of remaining infrastructure working in order to make sure they can keep themselves alive and maintain the human race. At times, they need to venture out of the down on makeshift rafts and boats in search of remnants of their old lives in a flooded world, searching for supplies and even seeds that will allow them to start life anew and to try to make amends with the world that they as a species have destroyed. This story is well crafted to create an immersive looking glass revealing a not out of the question future that is reminiscent of the chaotic misery that took place in the post-Katrina Superdome stadium just a few years in the past. Eighth Wonder provides both a harsh outlook on humanity's future and a glimmer of hope for our eventual attonement, and is well worth a read.

Rating: 8/10

The Black Square

This short story by Chris Adrian has an almost mystical premise that results in a very intriguing story. In essence, a black square has simply appeared in the world and no one knows where it came from, how it got there, or what it is. What is known is that if someone or something goes through the square, they are simply gone. Efforts to study it have not been fruitful, and people have been using the square as a means to remove themselves from the world, so instead it is secured to prevent people from using it without understanding the danger inherent therein. Even so, the square gains something of a cult following on the internet and people plan their trips to the square, intent upon traveling through it and discovering its mysteries for themselves. They are not suicidal per se, but are drawn by the immense magnetism of its mystery to the point that they are willing to risk death to explore the beauty of the portal to somewhere or nowhere.

The story follows a man that is unsatisfied with his current life and sets out to enter the square, only to meet another such man on his way there. The two interact and find something in each other that they had been lacking that tethers them to this side of the square and prevents them from haphazardly wandering through. Even so, the notion of the square is ever present throughout the tale making it a story that is constantly ruled over by the ominous and mysterious force of the square. The premise of The Black Square is excellent and its ability to effectively meld human concern and character development into a story that at its core relies on a central human desire to explore and to know results in a book that is simply not to be missed.

Rating: 9/10

Oblast

Oblast is a story by J Erin Sweeney about an increasingly plausible future in which most things seem to be quite similar to how they are now. A rare species of seal is on the verge of extinction due to hunting and a flu like disease that can be carried by humans and kills the seals. This book follows a group of scientists turned smugglers that are trying to secretly spirit away some of the last remaining members of this species into the depths of the ocean so that they might have a chance to reboot the seal population and avoid the permanence of extinction. The seals are carefully sealed away (excuse the pun) to prevent potential acquisition of disease from their human caretakers. On this boat of scientific researchers are another small collective smuggling a very different sort of cargo - children. Specifically, two children that are the sons of a deposed dictator from a chaotic country who are in danger of being kidnapped or killed in order to exploit their political value. The story focuses on the parallels of the situation faced by the boys and by their amphibious ship mates, bringing a lens to the role of humanity in destroying lives of many sorts and what our responsibilities are to protect these lives. This story may not be as imaginative as some others in this collection, but it is still able to effectively paint a picture of a world that is well within reason making its messages all the more accessible.

Rating: 7/10

There is No Time in Waterloo

This story by Sheila Heti follows the lives of the residents of the town of Waterloo, and in particular one teenage girl. The citizens of Waterloo have become reliant upon the theory that their destinies can be determined mathematically given the input of sufficient information. To this end they have created smart phone like devices into which they input every event that has occurred in their lives thus far as they occur. The device, called a Mother, will then indicate the probability of a certain outcome given a series of stimuli and taking into account your life up to this point. For example, if a child were about to enter a bicycle race, they could ask their Mother if they were likely to win said race. The Mother would know that the child had not previously been very athletic and would take into account various other factors in the child's background, and would reply that the child would not be likely to win. As a result, the child would know their immediate destiny and might choose to simply avoid the race altogether.

Because the Mothers have only existed for the last few decades, only teenagers in Waterloo have been linked to them their whole lives and as a result only their predictions are very accurate, since the Mothers of adults in the town are missing decades of information. Accordingly, teenagers with Mothers are given positions of esteem in the town and are able to make the important decisions that need to be made based on what is most likely to occur. What follows is a story that is both social commentary on our modern reliance on technology, and the essential unknowability of the future. It may not be the most artfully crafted of written works, but it makes for an enjoyable quick read to be sure.

Rating: 8/10

Material Proof of the Failure of Everything

Heidi Julavits brings us this tale of life in a near future post Soviet Hungary that is struggling to find its national identity and has fallen under the sway of dictatorial powers. Hungary has suffered through a number of economic hardships which resulted in the country being sold to banks, before being bought out by a man that claimed to have a vision for the future of the country which relied on restoring the country to its exact state when the USSR fell and the citizens of the country believed anything was possible but before they were corrupted by Capitalism and its failure to bring them happiness. This is taken to its literal extreme, to the extent that interior designers will come in with authentic Russian machine guns in order to replicate the bullet holes left by decades of strife in the region. This man builds a cult of personality and, as most dictators no doubt do, a network of spies to gain information on anyone who might have a negative opinion of his rule so that they might be dealt with.

The main character of the story is one such spy, who works in a hotel wherein he spies on the occupants of certain rooms as they are assigned to him. He constantly notes the extensive corruption present within those around him and his dissatisfaction with the state of affairs. Soon after the story begins, there is an unexpected change in management of his hotel spy ring and possibly of th country as a whole, and he is left quite in the dark about the specifics of what has happened. He becomes increasingly distraught with the fate of those close to him and with the eponymous “failure of everything” that he sees all around him. This story is perhaps the most dystopian in the book, and its occasional use of Hungarian phrases can make it somewhat difficult to penetrate at times but it still pulls together to form an intriguing look into a despotic state that is worth a read through.

Rating: 7/10

The Netherlands Lives with Water

This story by Jim Shepard focuses on central themes relating to climate change and how this has damaged the world over the course of decades. As the title suggests, this story takes place in the Netherlands, a country which has always had to work to control the water at its doorstep. In this near future it is clear that climate change has progressed rapidly and catastrophically, resulting in massive rises in sea levels that have been problematic, especially for low lying areas like New Orleans and Miami in the USA. The Dutch city in which this story takes place is at the forefront in the battle with the elements, and the main character is a man in the climate response sector who is left to battle both with the water and with familial problems that arise concurrently. As conditions grow increasingly worse in the Netherlands, he must contend both with how to evacuate the city and forestall its inevitable doom and with how to reconcile his relationship with his increasingly distant wife and son, and with his mother who is afflicted by dementia. The story is good about keeping a balance between the personal and regional issues. It is certainly not the most gripping story in this anthology, but it is very successful at portraying the constant push and pull between family and other obligations.

Rating: 6/10

The Enduring Nature of the Bromidic

This story towards the end of the anthology focuses on the state of Immigration in California in the not too distant future of the USA. As a country torn apart by biases against illegal immigrants and struggling to deal with its dual nature, this story focuses on the lives of a family of immigrants living illegally in California. While they try to adapt to life and to the American dream, they are hampered by the consequences of their choices in trying to integrate themselves into society. This story does serve to make some interesting reports about the state of immigration affairs, however on the whole the story is rather plodding, with not enough material to carry its readers to the end. Ultimately this story serves as an excessive exercise in imagining the near future that may be all too realistic in the USA, but it is not a future that is worth spending too much time reading.

Rating: 4/10

Overall Rating

On the whole this is certainly one of the best issues of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern that has been released to date in terms of sheer quality. The collection's leading story Memory Wall is fabulous in and of itself, and stories like Eight Wonder and The Black Square are imaginative and effectively integrate the core theme of the issue with immediately relatable themes. Some of the stories later on in the issue do falter and fail to find common ground, either leaning too heavily of personal themes or on the nature of their futuristic environment. Even so these stories are still interesting, and none of these stories completely miss the mark, so they are all worth a read through. This themed issue of McSweeney's was remarkably successful in its ability to give the authors a means to produce unique stories within the very broad confines of their own images of the near future. This issue is well worth its cover price, and can usually also be found on Amazon or other such sites at a discount. If you are new to McSweeney's and are looking for an issue to start with, this would certainly be one of my top choices and I would highly recommend it to your friends and family as well.

Overall Rating: 8.5/10


Literature | Book Review


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