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November 23rd, 2005 Kevin Sampsell | Books
 

McSweeney's #17

Lit mag-as-pile of mail masks its standout works of fiction.

     
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McSweeney's #17 Edited by Dave Eggers (McSweeney's Books, $24)

How far will the editors and designers of Dave Eggers' literary enterprise McSweeney's go before it becomes inaccessible? Issues have been published as multiple, separate booklets, enclosed in a box (#4), with a CD (#6), with a DVD (#11), with bonus comic books (#13), and with a comb (#16). McSweeney's, with its constant changing of shape, size, price and form, has been a source of aggravation to some booksellers and readers.

The new issue, McSweeney's #17, is the strangest yet. It's designed to look like a bundle of mail. A pile of fake advertisements, scam letters, booklets and ephemera is rubber-banded together and shrink-wrapped; it's even branded with an address and fake postage. If someone takes the plastic off, it mostly resembles a stack of crap. Some stores have even elected not to carry it. Books Inc., a Bay Area chain and longtime McSweeney's supporter, is one of them.

"I love McSweeney's," says head buyer Barry Rossnick. "But this is pretty unsellable. I don't know what to do with it or where to put it, especially with holidays coming out and the stores getting so crowded."

Even though the answer is simple—you put it on a bookshelf, silly—it doesn't change the fact that people like to flip through the books they're buying, and shrink-wrapped books don't sell as well. While adding a bit of flair to a literary magazine is always welcome to an often stale market—for example, the cover of this summer's issue of Fence featured a topless woman—there's nothing wrong with letting stories stand out on their own, especially if the form comes at the cost of accessibility.

Still, McSweeney's #17 is more than a funky prank. Although the enclosed issue of Yeti Researcher is a joke gone too far, the real payoff is the issue's fiction, published collectively as a fake magazine called Unfamiliar. While the stories included are engaging and often brilliant, it's easy to overlook a literary gem when the whole thing looks like a pile of junk.

 
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