A Review of McSweeney's Issue 28


For anyone not already familiar with it, McSweeney's 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 29 is a small issue that is heavily focused on style and theme. The issue comes as a bundle of 8 miniature books akin to the gold edged mini books that most of us likely remember to varying degrees from our youth. On one side of each book is a cover with the title and an illustration, while on the other side is one quarter of a larger image that looks like a painting. In this way, the mini books can be assembled together to form two large pictures for an interesting display. Each of the books is quite short and is in the style of a fable or another short vignette rather than a fully developed story. Each book is also nicely illustrated to add to the sense that this issue is reminiscent of childhood.

The Stories

Each of the eight mini books contains a single story replete with appropriate illustrations and a short blurb about the author in the back. What follows is a brief summary and review of each book.

LaKeisha and the Dirty Girl

Tayari Jones contributed this short story about two young girls, one with boundless wealth and one with nothing. The wealthy girl has an extensive collection of books which she buys not to read but because she likes the colors and the ways that they match with her outfits. The dirty girl, on the other hand, has a strong appreciation for the actual content of the books even though she herself cannot afford to buy any. This story focuses on a run in between these two girls from disparate worlds. It is a delightful piece to read and in many ways it seems somewhat self referential, as some people have been known to collect McSweeney's issues (and other books, of course) more for display than for reading purposes, which in many ways results in a the missing of the only point in having books in the first place - the ideas that they contain.

Rating: 8/10

Poor Little Egg-Boy Hatched in a Shul

This story is about a woman who is peeling hard boiled eggs in a Synagogue when she peels the shell off one only to discover that it is her son. No explanation is given for how this came to pass, and none is needed since this story is deliberately fantastical and is a parody of the moralizing nature and nonsensical conventions of children's fables. The egg boy finds that he tastes delicious and begins to eat himself, for which his sister is blamed. She is sent away from the house and the egg boy must grapple with his guilt and learn to own up for his actions. This farce is quite entertaining if quite bizarre, and is worth the few minutes it requires to read.

Rating: 7/10

The Thousands

This story by Daniel Alarcon is about a group of people from an unnamed place in an unnamed city that manage to set up a makeshift shanty town in an area that city planners had intended to develop upon. At a loss for what to do, the city leaves these people alone, and their city grows and they have offspring, and in time they become impossible to count and are referred to only as the Thousands. This story feels distinctly more literary than the others in this bundle, and while it does seem to be trying to get at certain essential human truths about community and the origins of society, on the whole it misses its mark and its lack of a moralistic fable ending makes it quite out of place in this bundle.

Rating: 4/10

The Guy Who Kept Meeting Himself

This story by Ryan Boudinot is far and away my favorite in the bundle. It is, as the title suggests, about a man that throughout his life keeps running into future iterations of himself. He interacts with these future visions and asks them for insights that he uses to get rich and plan out a fabulous wife, though he finds that always knowing what is to come next has sapped some of the essential vigor from his life, so he resolves to confront his future self about this facet of life. This tale is no science fiction story concerned with the nature of causality or the butterfly effect; it is instead an irreverent piece about the importance of spontaneity and the essential inability to know our own futures. If you could always know the future, would you still want to live your life just the same? This story is a great little read to be certain.

Rating: 10/10

Two Free Men

This fable was contributed by Sheila Heti, and is about the eponymous two men that are suffering in a world that demands things of them they don't feel they can provide. One man is actively suicidal and the other is simply depressed, and they literally collide into one another in such a way that their lives are forever changed. They live in a world that demands they constantly be free of commitment to anything or anyone, and yet they find that they are able to nonetheless commit themselves to each other as they are so similar and like minded that they can't help but do so. This story is a clever and intriguing piece of insight into how we derive meaning for ourselves in this life and is well worth reading through.

Rating: 8/10

The Box

This tale by Sarah Manguso is another fantastic work about a man and his box. Specifically, an empty box, or so the man claims. He keeps the box with him at all times and never opens it, and this withholding nature intrigues others, who in turn become great friends with and fans of the box owning man. In time, his mysterious box elevates him in the world and makes him happy beyond measure and even so he never opens the box though at that point he would likely be untethered from its own essential mysteries. The moral of this story is certainly nothing that one would find in a true childrens fable, but in that way this story succeeds fabulously at fusing the medium it tries to emulate with the audience it aims to entertain and even inform.

Rating: 9/10

The Book and The Girl

This vignette by Brian Evenson is a powerful story reminiscent of the classic childhood fable of the Giving Tree. A young girl loves a leather bound book that she owns. One day, an uncertain catastrophe that is likely a nuclear holocaust occurs, and the girl must enter the post apocalyptic world with nothing but her book. Over time the book goes from being a work of literature to an essential item that is used up to keep the girl alive in a harsh and unforgiving environment. The ending of this story is powerful and brilliant, and the illustrations add to the effect better than any others in the issue, making this story an essential read that will make you question the role of literature in our lives and consider what we take from the things we use in this life.

Rating: 9.5/10

Virgil Walker

There is no way to more accurately describe this story other than to say that it is quite bizarre and is a most suitable fable to adorn this odd McSweeney's issue. This story by Arthur Bradford is about the eponymous character Virgil Walker, who is an octopus born to human parents that abandon him at a pet shot because they do not know how to care for an octopus baby. In time, virgil escapes the pet shop with a turtle friend, and the two try to make their ways in the world. This story and the illustrations are quite twisted and are certainly entertaining to read, and the ending feels exactly like one one might find in an older edition of fairy tales before a saccharine nature took over and ensured that everyone lived happily ever after.

Rating: 6.5/10

Overall Rating

On the whole, the stories in this collection are fantastic as are the illustrations which lend them a great deal of character and bring home the notion that you are truly reading through a collection of children's fables before bedtime. The ability to combine the books into a series of images is nice, although it does little to add to the collection beyond the novelty factor (which is certainly no reason not to do such things). The biggest complaint about this issue is its length - you can comfortably read through all of these stories in 30 minutes or less, and even if you were reading them aloud to small children it would last only an hour or so. But perhaps that is the point - bedtime stories and fables aren't meant to be drawn out affairs of character development and ambiguous decisions. They are meant to drive at a single moralizing point with precision and fantastical imagery, and in that regard this issue largely succeeds. Still, it probably isn't worth the full cover price of the issue unless you are buying it to complete part of a collection a la LaKeisha. If you can find it at a marked down price, however, be sure to jump at the opportunity to grab a hold of McSweeney's Issue 28.

Overall Rating: 8/10

Literature | Book Review

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