As far as short fiction goes, McSweeney’s has always been one of my favorite magazines, partly because they don’t shy away from the fantastic. In the most recent issue, McSweeney’s 41, we have twelve short stories, four of which are written by Aboriginal Australian writers in a section highlighting Australian short fiction. The issue also contains two excerpts from McSweeney’s titles and two nonfiction essays.
Of those twelve short stories, two contain speculative elements. Steven Millhauser’s “American Tall Tale” is one of my favorites in the issue. The story tells of Paul Bunyon’s lazy, skinny brother, James Bunyon, and the sleeping contest they challenge one another to. I found this retelling refreshing in its lightheartedness, an entertaining exploration of sibling rivalry written in the style of those larger-than-life tall tales they teach to elementary school students.
I’m less enthusiastic about Ryan Boudinot’s “Robot Sex,” but it also has its merits. This story concerns the life of a robot who works in an office and communicates regularly with two exiled orangutans in space who are plotting with the rest of their species to take over the world. The robot’s life is much like ours, adjusted only slightly, but copulation for his kind is illegal and involves finding a “chop-shop owner who’s willing to look the other way for a couple of grand (pg. 170),” after which they weld, solder, and cross-connect their processors. He meets a lady robot, and trouble ensues. The ultimate message of the piece, that humanity is stuck in a violent cycle, is nothing new to fiction, but I like that technology is not viewed as destructive; rather, people are viewed as destructive toward technology.
“The Wolf and the Wild” by Jess Walter is possibly my favorite story in the issue. Although the main character, Wade, is a rich man convicted of a white collar crime, I could relate to him. Sentenced to volunteer work first as highway cleanup and then as a tutor for a school district, Wade’s attempts at redemption read sincere.
In Thomas McGuire’s “River Camp,” two childhood friends with a tumultuous past–one of them has slept with the other’s wife, and they both resent each other’s lives–go on a camping trip with an increasingly unstable, eccentric guide who begins to unravel. The tension is palpable, with strong characterization making the story stick out.
The hard Las Angeles agent, Richter, in Henry Bean’s “The Virago” also strikes me as a realistic character. By the end of the story, I felt I might know her, that she might be someone out there who I could one day encounter. Again I was surprised at the sympathy I felt for the rich woman afraid of losing her good fortune; having overheard a table of four young women calling her names, Richter becomes obsessed with destroying the careers of each of them. Already on a downward spiral, this obsession only speeds that spiral up, and her desperate attempts at keeping her place in the entertainment world makes you feel for her. An inside look at a character who ordinarily would be treated as a black-and-white villain.
We’re also given the villain’s point-of-view in Deb Onlin Unferth’s “Stay Where You Are,” though the majority of the story is told from Jane’s point-of-view. In the story a married couple, Max and Jane, with a tendency to stay constantly on the move are captured by a South American gunman. As he speaks Spanish and the couple does not, they don’t understand him, but the reader knows that the gunman has captured them in an attempt at impressing his group, thinking that they are Americans. Jane is tired of traveling all the time, wants to settle down, but Max cannot stand the idea. Jane’s struggle consumes her even in the midst of the situation at hand, which literalizes her longing to break free.
Aimee Bender’s “Wordkeepers” is a humorous flash fiction piece on our society’s reliance on technology, a young teacher and his students’ inability to find words for things because of that reliance, and his relationship with his much more old-fashioned neighbor. Bender’s ability to inhabit her stories is unrivaled.
The stories in the Aboriginal Australian portion of the issue are short, but they each provide an insight into Australian culture. In Tony Birch’s “The Promise,” an alcoholic whose wife has recently left him attempts to get her back, though not to change. The promise of the title is a promise he made as a young man, both to his wife and to anyone who asked of his plans for the future, to build a church. This is a story of hitting rock bottom, of transformation, and I appreciate Birch’s ability to put the reader into the mind of his main character.
In Ellen Van Neervan-Currie’s “S&J,” two young Aboriginal women pick up a hitchhiker. When one of them takes up with that hitchhiker, the other is faced with her own jealousy. The prose is well-written, sparse and to-the-point, and the distance of the narrative from the main character reflects her reluctance to admit to herself and others both her ethnic background and her sexuality.
Tara June Winch’s “It’s Too Difficult to Explain” is about a well-known runner on his own downward spiral. The prose here is often beautiful, the light coming in through Vincent’s window “the color of brittle toffee.” In Melissa Lucashenko’s “Tonsils,” a parental figure who has taken in an abusive mother’s gay daughter is forced to deal not only with the daughter’s increasingly poor health–she has a chronic cough, but the doctors will not remove her tonsils–but also the appearance of the daughter’s mother.
Overall, a solid issue of McSweeney’s.