McSweeney’s Issue 36 (Sara Habein’s review #21/53)

McSweeney’s 36
including work by Michael Chabon, John Brandon, Colm Tóibín, Wajahat Ali, Adam Levin and more

I do not have a subscription to McSweeney’s quarterly publication, and I usually purchase things from them when they run sales around Christmas. However, two things compelled me to pay full price for #36: Michael Chabon’s annotated chapters of his abandoned novel, Fountain City, and the fact that the issue is contained in a head-box. A somewhat disturbing head-box where one can lift open the scalp and rummage through its contents. It is gloriously morbid and I wanted it.

(After I bought it, it went on sale for around $5 less. Because of course it did.)

Let’s take a tour of the contents:

Brain stemmy...The underside of the head-box

I love the fish postcards (What is it with us and fish lately?), and the fortune cookie scroll is fantastic. The very first one reads, “Oliver Platt is your real dad. Sorry for the late notice.” I also liked “You pregnant,” and “Please make yourself seem like less of a shit.”

First thing, I started in with Michael Chabon’s Fountain City fragment. Chabon has been one of my all-time favorite authors for around a decade now, and I will gladly consume whatever he puts out. He is the sort of writer who is so good that I often hover perilously atop the line of “Yes! He makes me want to get to work!” and “Now I know I am so talentless.” I realize the latter is irrational, since of course all writers hate what they are working on at some point. Fountain City provides a window into that pre-published state where even the most gifted get bogged down with fruitless plot lines and inconsistent details. Chabon spent five years and 1500 pages on this book about “the vanished notion of home,” before finally abandoning it for Wonder Boys (a book, in part, about an author who has been endlessly working on a 1000+ page novel).

Every novel, in the moments before we begin to write it, is potentially the greatest, the most beautiful or thrilling ever written; but in the long dying fall after we have finished it (if we finish it), every novel affords us, with the generosity of a buffalo carcass affording meat, hide, bone, horn, and fat, the opportunity to measure precisely, at our leisure, the distance between it and L’Enfantesque dream. Our greatest duty as artists and as humans is to pay attention to our failures, to break them down, study the tapes, conduct the postmortem, pore over the findings; to learn from our mistakes.

The text of the book itself was interesting enough — though who knows how a whole book would’ve been — but you can bet I pored over every footnote. I know that some people liken it to the process of lawmaking and sausage, but I love seeing the bones that went into someone’s work, and how the author’s everyday life affected its contents. If you know me at all, you know I have already shamelessly pilfered our relationship to each other for writing material.

Neighbors, arguments with my ex-wife, meals eaten, hostels haunted, shoes I used to have, all made their way into the book, invisibly and unknown as such to anyone but me. I also found all kinds of bits and pieces of my childhood and life before my work on the novel began, stories and anecdotes and people and settings that, having served nobly and without complaint to feed the needs of the failed novel, receded or vanished completely from my own lived memory, until I rediscovered them, touched by the reunion, in the page of Fountain City.

Chabon also touches on the frequent occurrence of gay and bisexual characters in his stories, and the friendships they have with straight men. He is often asked about his sexual orientation — as though a person who is straight couldn’t possibly be interested in writing about not-straight characters — and he admits he’s given various bullshit answers over the years. My favorite book, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, details the first post-college summer of Art Beckstein, his complicated relationship with his father, his dating a semi-nuts girl named Phlox, and his all-out adoration of a man named Arthur. Chabon has a lengthy footnote comparing the character to himself, the assumptions other people made, and why he decided to have Art continue the sexual relationship with Arthur, when he had not with the man he loved in his own life.

Art’s relationship with his Arthur seemed to need the heft and the active sexuality of his thing with Phlox, or else the reader would discount it as somehow lesser. So bisexual Art became — just like, in other words, in some real, mild, and I believe, universal way, his creator.

I realize I’ve gone on at length about a mere 1/6th of the head-box, but I’ve already burned through most of Michael Chabon’s back catalogue prior to my book reviewing days. I haven’t yet had the chance to tell you all how I love his work, and feel a kinship with his marriage, as I, too, am married to someone in a creative field, someone whose opinion I trust. And while I wish he were online as often as his wife, Ayelet Waldman, perhaps it’s better that I know him through his official writing. It’s hard to say. I’m not a very good judge for healthy amounts of attention, as I often do my damnedest to OD on anything that pleases me.

And speaking of overabundance and 1000+ page novels, I was pleased to have an excerpt from The Instructions by Adam Levin included in the head-box. A book that long requires some serious faith, and despite the many good reviews I’d seen, I did not know if I wanted to read it. Concerning Gurion Maccabee, a messianic 7th grader in the “special” behavioral class, the first chapter details his fight after gym and his crush on a girl named Eliza June Watermark. Levin writes in such a true way, the flashbacks to middle school were almost uncomfortable.

I thought that maybe he didn’t know who I was — most Aptakisic students outside the Cage didn’t — and I wanted to tell him, “I’m Gurion Maccabee, best friend of your number-one enemy, Nakamook,” before I’d said anything, he was walking away, and before he walked away, he’d chinned the air a second time, and I’d chinned back, without even thinking, and felt just as brotherly and bothered as the first time.

“Baaaam Slokum,” Desmorie said as Slokum turned the corner.

I made the noise Tch = I am not your audience.

Desmorie made a noise back = “You’re lucky you’re not my son.”

I said, Hnh = That happens to be true, but not because you say so.

When I started the chapter, I really didn’t know whether or not I cared enough to want to read the whole book. Gurion is flat out strange, and could I handle 1000+ pages of strangeness? By the end of the 40 pages, I wanted in. Bring me that behemoth of a book when I’ve caught up on my book queue, and let’s do this.

Really, why should I be afraid of devoting time to a very long novel? This issue of McSweeney’s is over 600 pages in total, according to GoodReads, and though it took me some time, I made my way through it all, with one exception.

Another book excerpt comes in the form of Ma Su Mon: An Oral History of Resistance in Burma, edited by Maggie Lemere and Zoë West, which is taken from the upcoming Nowhere to Be Home. Part of McSweeney’s Voice of Witness series, it details the story of Ma Su Mon, a woman who became involved in Burma’s pro-democracy movement in the mid-90s. She was arrested and spent nearly a year in prison, and since her release, she has relocated to Thailand to continue her work as a journalist. “I don’t think I can go back home again, but I hope that one day it’s possible,” she says. “I hope that all my family members stay alive, and that I stay alive to see them again. If my family had a problem, I don’t know if I could go back to help them. If I died here in Thailand or somewhere else, my editors or my collegaues would have to take care of the funeral — I have no family here. Maybe my family could come, but they might not be able to get a visa. I don’t know.”

Now, Jungle Geronimo in Gay Paree by Jack Pendarvis? I … pretty much hated it. I don’t use that word lightly with art, but apart from a somewhat amusing introduction, I tried and failed to get into the rest. I am willing to give just about anything a fair shake, but this was just ridiculous for the sake of being ridiculous. I quit about 20 pages in, I admit. I’d quote something from those pages to illustrate my complaints, but that means I’d have to read it again. And make the effort of typing it. I’m not going to bother — that’s how much I disliked it. I had to move on.

Only slightly more enjoyable was Bicycle Built for Two by Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington. Written as an imaginary screenplay for a Mike Myers/Dana Carvey buddy comedy about pro baseball players on the title bicycle, it is another example of ridiculousness for the sake of ridiculousness. I finished it, but I don’t know, maybe I just like my silliness in the form of television. I know that it’s supposed to be a joke on the emptiness of movies that try to cash in on previously used formulas and cliches, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to enjoy reading 80 pages of it.

I’m going to have to revisit “Early Morning at the Station” by Andrew Kennedy Hutchison Boyd because, while it was a very slim fold of paper, something about it made it not great pre-sleep reading. I couldn’t absorb any of it during the first pass through, but that may not be the fault of the content.

Luckily, in terms of other brief offerings inside the head-box, Sophia Cara Frydman’s “Don’t Get Distracted” illustrated piece was quite lovely. The level of detail in her drawings is beautiful, and the random encounter between two people on the street reminds me of my own random conversations with people. It’s funny what sticks, the small moments we use for creative fodder.

Take family, for instance. Wajahat Ali’s play The Domestic Crusaders uses the lives of a Pakistani-American family to tell the story of traditions versus the modern age, discrimination, and perspective. I enjoyed it a lot, and I’m not typically in the habit of reading plays, though I do go see a live theater production at least once a year. Ali works in Islamic expressions, as well as lines delivered in Pakistani, without them seeming out of place or overly deliberate. I believe one can buy the play on its own through McSweeney’s as well.

The book of McSweeney’s 36 itself is one of the true highlights of the entire head-box, if for Colm Tóibín story “The Street” alone. Malik is a relatively recent arrival at a Barcelona barber shop that employs Middle Eastern immigrants. Eventually, Baldy has Malik selling phone cards rather than have him clean up inside the barber shop, the reasons for which are vague, but it still feels like a promotion. He stays with other employees at a dormitory of sorts, headed by their boss Baldy. There’s a shared bathroom, but in general, Malik does not mind the arrangement. One night, he retrieves a glass of water for a sick roommate, Abdul.

He whispered to him that he would get him more water if he needed it. Abdul did not reply, but squeezed his arm and then moved his hand down and touched Malick’s thigh.

In the morning, when he heard one of the others say that Abdul was too sick to go to work, he felt that something had happened between them. It had only been a second, but the touch had made him feel warm and comfortable, more so than if Abdul had spoken.

It’s a lovely, quiet and conflicted love story, and I wanted to read an entire book with these characters. Tóibín’s one of those writers whose work I always mean to read more, and I think “The Street” has finally confirmed for me that I need to make a more active effort.

The other stories and letters inside the 36 booklet are varying degrees of good, particularly the strangeness of Ismet Prcic’s “At the National Theater,” but if I expound any more on the contents of the head-box, I will be in danger of having said too much (if I haven’t already). This isn’t a perfect collection of work, but the novelty of the packaging and the pieces that I enjoyed immensely made it worth far more than its retail price.

Let me peek inside your brain...

#21/53

This review originally appeared on Glorified Love Letters

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