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November 20th, 2013 MATTHEW KORFHAGE | Books
 

The Best of McSweeney’s

Eggers’ omelette.

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My first encounter with McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern was at Reading Frenzy bookstore in the summer of 1999. The literary journal looked like nothing else. The cover of Issue 3 was filigreed with wry sayings, Victorian diagrams and crude drawings of chairs. “Made with affection by distrustful lovers,” the cover proclaimed. “It is flawed because it is true.” Sarah Vowell and Arthur Bradford showed up in the letters-to-the-editor section. Paul Collins, Aleksander Hemon and Rick Moody contributed an essay, a glossary and a poem, respectively.

It looked like home. And it was. It was seemingly custom-made for a 21-year-old obsessed with David Foster Wallace, Samuel Beckett, Lorrie Moore and Thomas Pynchon.

A few years later, of course, McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers was a famous memoirist—both lionized and savaged in the press. He was hailed as the future of literary publishing largely because of his love for the past, but just as often McSweeney’s was called cliquish MFA fare, Donald Barthelme-lite, gimmicky, the product of a trust-fund kid, a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too mélange of the coolly ironic and the bathetically sincere.

Well, McSweeney’s is all of those things, of course. Over the past 15 years—which saw the creation of Lucky Peach and The Believer magazines and countless book imprints—the publishing house’s approach to literature has been wide-eyed and ecstatic and, above all, indulgent. From dabbling in Sudanese literature to publishing literary journals with CD soundtracks or hypercolor covers, the  quarterly has shown itself a stunningly dedicated dilettante.

But its raccoon’s eye for shiny things has turned McSweeney’s into an impressive warehouse of treasures, documented newly and lovingly in a brick-dwarfing tome called The Best of McSweeney’s (McSweeney’s, 624 pages, $30). The story “Statistical Abstract for My Hometown Spokane, Washington,” by Jess Walter is a succession of 51 progressively intimate items told in “fun facts” format. It is also an emotional whip-cracker. Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Joe Sacco and Chris Ware offer up comics that amount to an argument for the form. Current it-kid writers such as Sheila Heti and Wells Tower were largely unknown when first published in McSweeney’s; it’s almost nostalgic to see them resurface here.

So yes, Eggers started McSweeney’s with a trust fund and a book deal. But while some people use their trust fund to pay for vacations and drugs and easy access to sex, what Eggers and McSweeney’s did was change literature. And looking at this collection, it’s hard to think it didn’t change it for the better.


GO: McSweeney’s contributors Arthur Bradford, Jess Walter and editor Jordan Bass will read at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Tuesday, Nov. 26. 7:30 pm. Free.

 
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