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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, October 19th, 2003


McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales

by Michael Chabon

On the trail of a genre high

A review by Paul Quinn

Some time around 1950, short fiction lost the plot. That is what Michael Chabon claims in his introduction to this special edition of McSweeney's. Until that somewhat arbitrary date, he argues, the term "short fiction" would conjure up all sorts of generic associations: the ghost story; the horror story; the detective story; the story of suspense, terror, fantasy or the macabre; the sea, adventure, spy, war or historical story; the romance story. "Stories", he asserts, "with plots." Since that time, we have endured the hegemony of "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story".

Chabon's mission, like that of some intrepid character from one of the tales here, is to "revive the lost genres of short fiction". He evokes a golden period when grand masters such as Poe, Balzac and Twain spun yarns rippling with plot and mystery and a later period when short fiction of dazzling variety was published both by the pulps — with their roster of wounded, lonely greats like Hammett, Chandler and Lovecraft, as well as many other unsung mavericks — and by the slick magazines of their time like the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's and even, before it solidified into House Style, "that proud bastion of the moment of truth story", the New Yorker. Supporting his revivalist mission, Dave Eggers has invited Chabon to edit an edition of his journal McSweeney's. Already published in the United States as McSweeney's 10, this reprint by Hamish Hamilton marks the journal's official arrival in Britain.

Chabon's introduction, of course, raises a number of questions, as all good anthology introductions should, even ones with motives as apparently uncontroversial and benign as restoring "plots" and "fun" to fiction. There is danger, for example, in Chabon's implications that genre and plot are synonymous and it is wrong to assume that genre fiction has remained unaltered, preserved like the pre-historic Megaladon in its ice-walled Antarctic bay in the story by Jim Shepard that opens the collection. Most genres have evolved in parallel with mainstream fiction, many becoming equally psychology-centred or style-driven. To reduce the science-fiction story, for instance, to the pulp tradition is like reducing the non-genre story to the example of O. Henry. Chabon's own literary practice and the range of contributors he has chosen suggest he is well aware of the diversity available both inside and outside genre fiction.

The twenty authors here include big-name franchises, such as Stephen King and Michael Crichton; writers with impeccable genre credentials (though not averse to genre-bending), such as Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock and Elmore Leonard; writers associated with particular genres who have promoted an expanded idea of genre, such as Kelly Link and Carol Emshwiller; and writers from the mainstream who have an obvious affection (nostalgic or otherwise) for the tricks and tropes of genre such as Chabon, Eggers, Chris Offutt and Rick Moody.

Despite the range, there is a definite tendency towards pulp imagery. The pastiche presentation and the melodramatic story trails ("He went in search of a relic of Earth's past, and came face to face with the mortal specter of his own!") tread a fine line between homage and condescension. Chabon's affection for pulp and for poverty-row visionaries (in evidence also in his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) is indisputable, and he is clearly familiar with state-of-the-art developments in science fiction sub-fields, such as steampunk, slipstream and alternate history (the common genre term for counterfactual tales exploring what would have happened had history turned out differently, resulting in a bizarre but strangely plausible world). But, at the risk of appearing humourless, I find something troubling about the lavishly anachronistic layout ("It has been designed to resemble a pulp magazine from the 1940s"), and in the incorporation of actual advertisements (and parodies of them; in McSweeney's universe it is ever more difficult to separate the two) that were once the staples of the pulps: ads for dubious correspondence courses, cheap clothing for outdoor workers, manual typewriters for hire at 10 cents a day, jobs as mail clerks. Ads which once appealed to — and exploited — the genuine aspirations and deprivations of their original readers have here become items of kitsch for the amusement of McSweeney's highly educated and knowing subscribers. This is one of the dangers of attempting to revive symbolically not just a predilection for plot but the historical context in which those plots were situated.

Fortunately the stories involve more sensitive negotiations between past and present forms. Indeed, it is interesting to trace the continuities and discontinuities in what Fredric Jameson would call the political imaginary of these stories, as the imperial basis of many of the tales associated with pulp's golden age is brought into uneasy alignment with the globalized economy of today. In this Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales we encounter airships, mummies, intrepid explorers, mountaineers, and time-travellers: the traditional stuff of pulp, or, to cite Michael Moorcock's Holmesian detective in "The Case of the Nazi Canary", of "the bloods . . . the tuppenny skinnies and fourpenny fats". But here, too, are tourist buses, circulating capital, drugs and quantum physics: the stuff of much of today's literary fiction.

The distance between these two modes and mindsets is most starkly revealed in the contribution of McSweeney's presiding genius, Dave Eggers, whose "Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly" moves bathetically between the ideal of adventure inspired by Boy's Own stories and the "Adventure Travel" of corporate websites. Chabon's point that today's plotless story is in fact throughly generic, though naturalized, an invisible genre as it were, is a good one, and not entirely undermined by his whimsical assertion that it would have been equally possible for the "nurse romance" to have held sway these past fifty years. What is revealing in the meeting of Eggers and the adventure story here, is partly what he contributes to the deconstruction of an outmoded genre, but also what the form reveals about the "generic" nature of Eggers's own work and of the kind of fiction McSweeney's publishes.

It is the story of Rita, a middle-aged American woman determined to prove something to herself about courage and commitment by hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro on a trip organized by EcoHeaven Tours. Her derring-do is inescapably belated and commodified, carefully managed and stripped of exoticism. "Her guidebook had promised blue monkeys, colobus monkeys, galagos, olive baboons, bushbacks, duikers, hornbills, turacos. But the forest is quiet and empty." At a pivotal point in the story this very modern piece of writing invokes the kind of colonial imagery that marked "the lost genre" of jungle stories: "She has a sudden vision of servants carrying kings aboard gilt thrones, elephants following, trumpets announcing their progress". The story both glances back to the strangeness of the imperial past and points out a continuum of exploitation. As in Eggers's novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, we are in the small world of the global dollar, and the backpacker has usurped the central role of the adventurer; this is the Empire of Hardt and Negri's book of that name rather than the traditional one on which the sun never sets. When real danger arrives, it is not Rita who suffers but the local porters who carry the tourists' bags up the mountain: the third-rate tents they must shelter in leave them — but not their first-world employers — at the mercy of the elements. Rita's responsibility to herself and to a foster child she has "abandoned" is caught up in a web of global responsibilities and complicities.

In an extreme way this illustrates a tendency that characterizes much of this volume; Eggers is not "reviving" a lost genre in the way Chabon's introduction asserts, but registering our distance from those ripping yarns, from their historical and aesthetic forms. Instead, we get typical Eggers/McSweeney's prose, sometimes overconvinced of its own cuteness, but capable of luminous details: "Mike now had the perpetual look of someone disarming a bomb"; "The tent is yellow. The sun makes the tent seem alive; she's inside a lemon". Despite the adventure-story backdrop, Eggers has not revived a lost genre but written a variation on a nascent one: the post-postmodern moral fable marked by a characteristic yearning for a lost authenticity buried somewhere beneath a blizzard of debased information and semiotic dreck. A more cynical version of this quest is found in "Goodbye to All That" by one of science fiction's most revered masters, Harlan Ellison, a mordant little comedy in which a traveller to a remote Himalayan monastery in search of the ultimate enlightenment, "the Heart of Irredeemable Authenticity", finds the portals to truth turn out to be the "dual archlike parabolas" of a celestial McDonald's.

After a few stories it becomes evident that Chabon's distinction between the old plot-heavy genres and the self-revelatory mainstream, between the action tale and the account of interior life, cannot hold. The least successful stories are those that are over-reverent to traditional forms, such as Neil Gaiman's merely efficient ghost story "Closing Time". Elsewhere, exciting quests lead to just the kind of self-revelation that is supposedly the hallmark of the plotless story: Jim Shepard's naturalist hero simultaneously comes face to face with the lurking Megalodon and with an awareness of the sibling rivalry at the core of his lifelong psychic unease; Aimee Bender's detective tale proceeds from the mundane clues of salt and pepper shakers to breach the dark heart of domesticity and reveal how a long-married couple can love each other to death; "Private Grave 9" by Karen Joy Fowler digs away at an Egyptian grave site to reveal, not some ancient curse or re-animated mummy, but an inner wound: the archaeologist hero's inability to connect emotionally with the opposite sex; in "The General", Carol Emshwiller's hardened rebel hero hiding in the mountains in an unnamed country learns too late the consolations of family life. There is no shortage here of moments of truth.

Some of the stories treat the opportunities offered by traditional genres more idiosyncratically. "Chuck's Bucket" by Chris Offutt is a delightful melding of SF and Borges, a metafictional tale of a blocked writer who agrees to take part in a time-travel experiment, moving through quantum tunnels into alternative futures in order to discover how to finish the story he has been commissioned to write by Michael Chabon. What sounds in abstract overly arch is actually very inventive, funny and moving, and there is a running oedipal strand at work, for Offutt's father, Andrew, was a pulp science fiction writer who had a famous feud with Harlan Ellison, and the story, with its twenty-five possible futures, works as an act of reconciliation between son and father, and between mainstream and genre fiction.

Chabon's own contribution, "The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance" is, understandably enough, one of the stories truest to the introductory brief; richly plotted, action-packed, it is set in an alternate history, Victorian Age America where the British Empire still extends to the colonies, to the consternation of rebel forces led by George Armstrong Custer. Chabon skilfully elaborates his world and draws not just on the steampunk worlds of Gibson, Sterling and Moorcock, but on alternate histories by brilliant SF mavericks such as Avram Davidson and Howard Waldrop. The imperial politics are craftily resonant and the story keeps us hanging on in time-honoured serial way for the next instalment promised in a future McSweeney's.

Even better is Rick Moody's "The Albertine Notes", which, as the title suggests, brings that embodiment of high literature and natural enemy of conventional plot, Marcel Proust, to the science-fiction story. It is a well-conceived SF tale set in a dirty, bomb-devastated future New York (the faultline of 9/11 runs across several of these stories) where people take solace in a memory drug, Albertine, to return to their most vividly cherished time. The story works both on Chabon's terms, as a well-plotted thriller about the forces vying for control of the drug, and by giving genre a Proustian shot in the arm. Perhaps the scariest part of the story (scarier even than its climactic tour of bombed-out Manhattan) comes when, stripped of all consolation — even the kind Proust provides — the narrator is forced to consider that his own most treasured moments of recall, the mental events that constitute him, are "just a bunch of sentimental memories" utterly uninteresting to anyone else. The fact that he is a would-be writer makes this an especially chilling discovery. Pushing Michael Chabon's brief to the utmost, Moody has used plot to bring us up against plotlessness, the genre story to bring us a moment of unpalatable, uncategorizable truth.

Paul Quinn is a freelance writer and programme maker.

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