Belly is a book about a man named Belly. Belly aka William O’Leary is a grandfather now, just out of jail after four years in for illegal bookkeeping, but he used to be a real big shot in Saratoga Springs. He was also a drunk, cruelly dismissive of his family and torn up by the death of his third daughter. When he arrives back home he finds that his old stomping grounds have changed and that his three surviving daughters are wary of his presence. The book encompasses Belly’s first week of freedom and is more a character study of this difficult man than a plot-driven novel. Because Belly is so stubborn and belligerent, it is difficult to commiserate with his bitterness about the incursion of WalMart and fancy chain coffee shops. In fact, I found Belly, the man, to be so repugnant that I thought that Lisa Selin Davis was trying to point out that he was wrong, that those chain stores aren’t so bad, but based on this interview, I can see that that is not the case. Belly is an admirable debut, with a handful of well-crafted characters, especially Belly and his oldest daughter Nora, but I would have more enjoyed reading about these characters in a more dynamic plot.
In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers describes the origins of his first publishing endeavor. The first ad (well, it was a sticker, but whatever) read thusly:
SCREW THOSE IDIOTS.
In typically postmodern (and neurotic) response to this, Eggers realizes that something’s amiss about the sticker: “It’s unclear who is being screwed. Who are the idiots that should be getting screwed?” He imagines a few ways in which this ambiguity could have been avoided:
MIGHT MAGAZINE SAYS:
SCREW THOSE IDIOTS.
“SCREW THOSE IDIOTS,”
SAYS MIGHT MAGAZINE
SCREW THOSE IDIOTS
(“THOSE IDIOTS” NOT REFERRING TO THOSE BEHIND
MIGHT MAGAZINE, THE MAKERS OF THIS STICKER,
WHO ARE GOOD PEOPLE AND SHOULD NOT BE SCREWED.)
The whole point of the marketing strategy was to intrigue people, to make them think, “What is Might?…I do not know, but when it becomes clear what it is that they will be doing, I will be very interested in their doings.”
One could have easily said the same of Mr. Eggers at that point in his career. Who is this young, ballsy writer? Though older than the rest, Eggers’s debut came along with a group of writers we could call the Undergraduates –– young, precocious authors with daring, audacious styles. Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, Mark Z. Danielewski, and Z.Z. Packer all made their debuts around the same handful of years. (The Graduates, of course, being David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Jeffrey Eugenidies, et al.) Eggers, here, would be that older guy in the class, somehow funnier and smarter than everyone else, even if he never ends up graduating.
For Eggers definitely did not graduate with his class. No, he dropped out and started his own ventures. Who would have been able to predict the trajectory of Eggers’s career? From that original (but now in some ways dated) first book, Eggers has since stepped in nearly every field relating to writing: he published two story collections (one of which is flash fiction), novels, and two nonfiction works; he co-wrote two screenplays; he has written comic strips and essays and song lyrics; he founded The Believer, Wholphin, and 826 National, a non-profit that helps kids with writing; and he edits the annual Best American Non-Required Reading series, with the help of students. He’s been nominated for numerous awards (including the Pulitzer and the National Books Critics Circle Award) and won others (including the Salon Book Award and the American Book Award). But by the far the most influential contribution Eggers has made on the literary landscape is McSweeney’s, the so-called “Quarterly Concern” that has, for the last 15 years, produced some of the most original fiction and nonfiction out there, all packaged in some of the most beautiful and innovative book designs ever printed. Who is this young man? We didn’t know, but when it became clear what it was that he was doing, we all became very interested in his doings.
McSweeney’s could be called aggressively progressive. Not only are the stories often unconventional, experimental, and unique, so are the issues themselves. Some are conceptual designs, as in Issue 21, the cover of which has a little flap and if you pull it out it makes the cover connect to the back, creating “an unending panorama, a revelatory 360-degree immersion into a packed and pointy world.” Or Issue 26, which came in three small, postcard sized books and were “based on the World War II-era Armed Services Editions released by the Council on Books in Wartime, under the auspices of the U.S. War Department’s Morale Branch.” Or Issue 33, which was presented as a full-blown newspaper called The San Francisco Panorama. Others featured extremely original (and sometimes downright odd) theme: Issue 31’s aim to unearth “neglected or deceased literary forms,” such as the pantoum, the whore dialogue, the Socratic dialogue and Graustrarkian Romance (whatever the hell that is), or Issue 32’s challenge for authors to “travel to somewhere in the world…and send back a story set in that spot fifteen years from now, in the year 2024.”
Even the issues without a conceptual design or a creative theme are elegantly and beautifully rendered. Behind this progressive innovation lies an old-fashioned love of books as objects. McSweeney’s, I think, deserves much credit (and should, in various ways, be followed) for figuring out a way to make printed works not only relevant but also wholly separate from the latest digital iterations. You can’t ever make an e-book as gorgeous to look at or as wonderful to hold in your hands. And to those people who think covers and jackets and designs don’t matter, well I say this: Screw those idiots.
Same goes for those who dismiss the entire enterprise of McSweeney’s as a hipster outlet for quirky nonsense and youthful haranguing. We have now The Best of McSweeney’s, a 600+-page anthology that samples from everything they’ve put out in the last decade and a half. I would defy anyone to read this thing cover-to-cover and still maintain that McSweeney’s has contributed nothing to the world of creative art. As the back of the books promises, The Best of McSweeney’s gives us “a fascinating glimpse into recent literary history.” This is true for more than just the merit of the pieces included (though they are nearly all great), but for the unexpected insights their inclusion brings out.
This book is simply brimming with priceless inside looks into the workings of contemporary writers. Many of the stories are introduced by their authors, giving us a little bit of backstory into the creation of the thing. Wells Tower’s presents us with two versions of the same story, “Retreat,” which appeared in Issues 23 and 30, respectively. Each contain the same characters, the same essential setup, and even much of the same lines. Only the perspectives are different, but boy does that change the whole of it. In explaining why he struggled so much with this story, Tower cites “all the long-form nonfiction” he’d been writing. Here, he explains one difference between fiction and non-:
Nonfiction –– even ‘literary’ nonfiction –– call for tools and processes that are pretty much useless when it comes to making short stories. In metalworking, they have this term, ‘cold connections,’ which is when you take two pieces of metal and rivet. A few smart bashes, and you’ve got a bracelet with lots of nice bangles on it, and you’ve spared yourself the hot, tedious business of soldering and sweating joints. In a pinch, nonfiction can squeak by on cold connections.
Tower’s two iterations of “Retreat” (as well as his comments on them) offer a fascinating example of how much one can do with a single premise.
We are later, of course, to see Tower’s “Retreat” reappear in his collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, and we now know which version he prefers (the second one, FYI). Many of the stories here ended up in well-acclaimed collections, and one of the great aspects of this anthology is getting to see them in earlier drafts. David Foster Wallace’s story “Mr. Squishy” appears here, and one very subtle change that occurred between its appearance in McSweeney’s (under the pseudonym Elizabeth Klemm, a moniker everyone saw straight through)and its inclusion in Wallace’s Oblivion is worth noting. When “Mr. Squishy” graced the pages of Issue 5, the opening line read: “The Focus Group was reconvened in another of Reesemeyer Shannon Belt’s 19th-floor conference rooms.” In Oblivion, it reads: “The Focus Group was then reconvened in another of Reesemeyer Shannon Belt Advertising’s nineteenth-floor conference rooms” (italics mine). Besides spelling out 19th (Wallace often used shorthand, acronyms and abbreviations in order to fit as many words in as little space as possible) and clarifying just what “Reesemeyer Shannon Belt” did as a company, the addition of the word then is hugely significant. It completely changes the opening line, albeit in a small way. In the first version, the line functions as a beginning; in the final version, we join a narrative already in progress. We missed what came before then, as if the story had been going on long before we came to it.
Other highlights: a rare short story from Zadie Smith, taken from the issue that pitted McSweeney’s against They Might Be Giants. A section of comics from Issue 13 featuring funny and poignant pieces by Chris Ware, Daniel C. Clowes, Joe Sacco, and Adrian Tomine. Andrew Sean Greer’s hilarious account of his and his husband’s experience at a NASCAR event in Michigan (from the San Francisco Panorama issue). We get Jonathan Ames’s “Bored to Death,” inspiration for the HBO series of the same name, George Saunders’s “Four Institutional Monologues,” one of which only recently (despite the story being published in 2000) appeared in his latest collection, Tenth of December, and a trio of stories from International writers, deriving from issues dedicated to Norwegian, South Sudanese, and Indigenous Australian fiction.
But this being McSweeney’s, there’s a lot more than stories. Included here are also the best letters they’ve ever received, from the likes of Sarah Vowell, Peter Orner, and John Hodgman. There are four pantoums from the “neglected and deceased” forms issue, as well as a few 20-minute stories, which are exactly what they sound like: stories written in 20 minutes flat (although Aleksandar Hemon admits that his took 30). In other words, this is a fun and eclectic anthology, perfectly in keeping with the McSweeney’s philosophy, which Eggers explains in his Introduction thusly: “That’s what we look for –– writers who make us feel like they’re seeing their world, whatever that is, with fresh eyes, and who allow us to experience it through their words.” McSweeney’s, like Eggers himself, regularly provides the world with interesting and unique perspectives –– from different cultures, different personalities, and different aesthetic approaches. It does what all literary journals should aim to do. That is, be bigger than the sum of its parts, yet still allow each part to stand on its own. It’s a hard line to walk, but McSweeney’s, with its irreverent attitude and pure love of good writing, manage to do every issue, every year.
Despite some notable exclusions (no Joyce Carol Oates? no Yannick Murphy?), The Best of McSweeney’s is a triumph, not only as a stand-alone book, but also (and especially) as a testament to the power of the short story, the essay, the experiment. A tribute, too, to the power of one person’s vision, proof that writers can influence the world outside the borders of their prose. Eggers, lucky for us, has a great deal of passion for the work of other people, for supporting new writers and celebrating neglected ones. His and his colleagues’ (Jordan Bass and Eli Horowitz, the two editors of McSweeney’s) is an essentially artistic project but underneath that is a layer of fierce morality, one that believes in the rights of people and the importance of their stories.
When it comes to baseball, the mind is unreliable and selective in what it remembers. Games and seasons blend into to one another and most second basemen or relief pitchers fade from view forever soon after they leave the diamond for good. Old teams and players live on only as lines of statistics in massive baseball encyclopedias or deep historical databases. Lost, too, are the millions of moments that make up every game. But Roger Angell has been quite good, over the years, at capturing those moments and preserving them as though in amber. And so, in reading his collection of baseball pieces that span more than forty years, one feels a bit like the lucky archeologist who has stumbled upon magnificent specimens so exquisitely preserved as to seem positively lifelike. Angell writes with almost scientific precision: “With the strange insect gaze of his shining eyeglasses, with his ominous Boche-like helmet pulled low… Reggie Jackson makes a frightening figure at bat.” Angell is not just an observer; he is also the ultimate fan, rooting for childhood favorites or for a team whose story has caught his fancy that particular year. Game Time is laid out like the baseball year, with pieces about the languor and anticipation of spring training in the beginning and closing with multi-faceted recollections of several past World Series. The many pieces taken together are like one long summer spanning forty years, a summer when you went to the ballpark frequently but listened to most of the games on the radio on the back porch at dusk.
We are a society of consumers. In any of America’s 4,135 Walmart locations, you may find us observing our grotesque sacrament of consumption, enrobed in Duck Dynasty apparel and attended by trains of resource-gobbling offspring whose ominous chants for Monster Energy Drink and Despicable Me talking figurines can be heard halfway to the parking lot. We buy it; we break it, tire of it, or allow it to spoil; and we discard it. We are hell-bent on destroying the planet, and Black Friday is, as it were, our Black Mass. So, at any rate runs a popular line of self-flagellation — but to what degree is it true?
Jonathan Miles’s new novel, Want Not, hopes to make us think long and hard about this question. The book opens on Thanksgiving Day, 2008. Its three narratives, which cohere thematically but don’t much intersect in the contrived manner familiar to moviegoers, follow freegan squatters in Manhattan; the loathsome owner of a collection agency, his troubled wife, and his stepdaughter; and a middle-aged liguististics professor grappling with his failed marriage, his father’s Alzheimer’s disease, and a difficult project drawing on his knowledge of dead and dying languages.
The squatter plot recalls Justin Taylor’s The Gospel of Anarchy (2011), a novel about a Florida anarchist collective. There is, if not quite a love triangle, an odd domestic arrangement: Micah and Talmadge take on Matty, Talmadge’s childhood friend and fresh out of prison in Oregon. They lecture him about freeganism in a way that is also for the reader’s instruction, just as one Dan Brown character might explain the Priory of Sion to another. Gradually, these characters do assume real depth; a flashback to Micah’s own off-the-grid childhood and subsequent wanderings (as far as India) furnish the book’s most exotic, poetic passages, as in this description of Indian poverty:
It wasn’t the makeshift blue shanties and lean-tos, or the women thrashing clothes on rocks, the men squatting to defecate in the shade of Peepal trees, or the naked, cinnamon-colored children cooling themselves in puddles — all this was too familiar, even nostalgically comforting, to faze her. What wrenched her, instead, was the unnatural landscape of the poverty: the scale, the density, all the degraded details. The coolant-green, battery-acid-yellow swirls in the puddle those children were cooling in. The mustardy burning-trash haze that strangled the breeze those women were sucking into their lungs as they paused between thrashings.
Matty goes through the motions of learning to scavenge, to salvage — in one very effective nail-biter of a scene, he is nearly flattened in a trash compactor — but his eye is on the main chance, and what he comes to find in his friends’ lifestyle is not salvation so much as criminal opportunity. Endowing Matty with this mercenary streak was a canny move on Miles’s part. It reveals a mature understanding that not everyone can be brought sincerely into the fold, that people will want what they want no matter how fully they may try to engage with the arguments of the pious.
As for Elwin Cross Jr., the linguist, we encounter him just as he’s killed a deer with his Jeep Cherokee. There was, conveniently, a time in Cross’s youth when he pored over “the Foxfire books as if they were Talmudic scrolls,” and under the influence of wine and nostalgia he decides to take the kill home and butcher it. Waste not, want not. Miles describes this process so vividly and in so dignified a manner that, rather than making the reader squeamish, it may have him clicking over to the Cabela’s website. Other things that Elwin refuses to discard include his technically totaled Jeep; Christopher, the drunken, buffoonish son of his abusive neighbor; his father’s memories; the endangered languages of micro-ethnic groups.
This may sound a bit too elegant, even pat, but it is mild in comparison with Dave Masoli, Miles’s laziest creation. Masoli is a Frankenstein’s monster of stereotypes. “An hour after eating Thanksgiving dinner,” Miles writes, Dave “was staring into the toilet with wide-eyed awe and admiration.” Yes, we are in for a bathetic rhapsody to a bowel movement — in Dave’s view, a whole bowel symphony — and like the scatological tableau in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, it doesn’t rise above the level of Tucker Max gross-out merely by being in an upper-middlebrow novel. It takes the book’s kitchen-sink approach to waste too literally and too far.
Dave is obnoxious, greedy, unscrupulous, homophobic, racist, a cigar aficionado, and, of course, a Republican. Ostentatiously humanizing a caricature like this, as Miles ultimately does, may be worse than having drawn the caricature in the first place. It suggests that Miles believes he is being imaginative, or insightful, or even shocking in proposing that a person such as Dave might also possess a soul. That most people are walking contradictions should cease to astonish around the time one’s history teacher reveals that Hitler was a vegetarian and Stalin wrote love poetry.
Miles’s plot, his superflux of character and incident, is at times as bloated as the America it examines. Want Not seems to crave pride of place with such “sprawling” books as Infinite Jest and Freedom. Miles includes an unsubtle advertisement for his own simile-laden prose style on the first page: One of his characters is “an inveterate analogizer who couldn’t help viewing the world as a matrix of interconnected references in which everything was related to everything else through the associative, magnetizing impulses of his brain. Back in college he’d read that this trait was an indicator of genius.”
Want Not isn’t a work of genius, but it is a triumph of careful planning. It is a book designed for book clubs and high school classrooms. Its themes and morals are, like one of those barn-owl-pellet science kits, both easy to unpack and, if considered in the right frame of mind, fascinating. Its reach may exceed its grasp, but it earns that oft-abused adjective ambitious. With the lone exception of Dave Masoli, Miles’s characters are well drawn, convincing, and easy to care about; his prose is intricate but reads at a good clip. But the greatest compliment one can pay Want Not is that it turns out not to be a didactic novel about reducing, reusing, and recycling. It may be just the opposite, a subversive argument that we are focusing our attention on the wrong sort of waste.
Elwin’s project is to help prepare a warning for a New Mexico HAZMAT dump, a message that will be intelligible to a civiliation of 10,000 years hence. It is an exercise in deep-time communication, and based on a real-life project at the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository. For all that well-educated Americans enjoy trash-talking themselves and their consumption habits, the deep-time warning makes us seem optimistically conscientous. Man, if by some miracle he endures another 10,000 years, may face far more serious threats than the presence of a radioactive junkyard. Yet he insists on making an effort to protect our children’s children’s children, ad infinitum. Good for him.
Call it love or humanity or something like it. But let’s not forget our actual children. The book describes one heartbreaking miscarriage, one live birth consigned to and rescued from a dumpster. Miles’s main characters are people who need to be picked up, dusted off, and repaired. Sometimes one suspects that Miles is instructing us not to worry so much about abstractions. “[G]arbage was the only truthful thing civilization produced,” Matty thinks, “because that’s where all the dirty secrets went.” Ask any archaeologist: We are that garbage. We’re all headed for the same scrap heap, as is our species, as far as deep time is concerned. It’s to our great credit that we look to the future, but we shouldn’t let our very fleeting present go to waste, either.