Anyone who has made a living sitting in a cubicle has at one time or another wondered if there is more to life than pushing the proverbial pencils. These second thoughts are central to our existence as working folk. Often, when that meeting has dragged on an hour to long or when the boss is peppering you with inane suggestions, you wonder what it would be like to do something that really matters. Absolutely American by David Lipsky is about a group of people, West Point cadets, who have decided to or been thrust into a profession that, in the eyes of the government and much of the population, really matters. Their concerns are not the cubicle but of hewing to countless regulations, eight-mile road marches in full gear, and ultimately sending people into battle one day. According to Lipsky’s introduction, he went to West Point, the military academy that trains army officers, to write an article for Rolling Stone, and he eventually found himself fascinated by the enthusiasm he found there. Lipsky ended up spending four years following the cadets. The book reads like a magazine article, and Lipsky’s writing rarely falters. He presents a West Point that is infinitely more complicated than the typical stereotype of the army. It is an Army that is at war with itself internally, as it tries to become more diverse and progressive. The book covers the years 1998 to 2002, so we get to see the transformation that September 11 causes in both the cadets and the army itself. Lipsky’s greatest feat is to make the reader realize that behind the “high and tight” haircuts, the uniform, and the stern demeanor, those who are called to the military are as complicated and conflicted as the rest of us.
Haruki Murakami, perennial favorite for the Nobel Prize in Literature, eccentric juggernaut with a penchant for classical music, cats, and the quotidian lameness of life in the modern world, has returned with yet another occasionally charming, often frustrating novel. Unlike Kafka on the Shore (2002), arguably Murakami’s most accomplished realization of his aesthetic, however, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is considerably flawed, even when judged within the strange and disjointed context of the author’s previous work.
We meet Tsukuru Tazaki when he is in the throes of suicidal depression. He had been an integral member of a group of five creepily close friends, each of whose names contained a color except Tsukuru’s. One day, without warning or explanation, he is banished from this group. None of his former companions so much as answers a phone call for the next 16 years. Alongside this, a separate narrative of Tsukuru’s life in the present as an engineer of train stations follows our bland hero as he gets to know Sara, an efficient, sensible professional who, like most of the women in Murakami’s fiction, possesses a beauty that strains metaphor and breasts worth remarking upon. Sara, like any reasonable person, is amazed that Tsukuru has never once tried to discover why his friends exiled him. She refuses to sleep with him until he does so. “You mean you can’t make love with me?…Because I have some — emotional issues?” Tsukuru asks her over dinner during one of the novel’s many exasperating conversations. She responds, “That’s right…But I think they’re the kind of problems you can overcome, if you really make up your mind to do so. Just like you’d set about repairing a defect in a station.”
That remarkably short-sighted idea — that everything from impotence to “deep-seated emotional issues” (variously described as feeling like “a sudden, stabbing pain,” “swallow[ing] a hard lump of cloud,” and a “silent silver pain”), can be solved like a black and white Rubik’s Cube — is how Murakami initiates the quest structure in his narratives. It is a good trick, too. There is something relentlessly compelling about following a sympathetic character on a journey to find the missing pieces to the jigsaw puzzle du jour, whether those pieces are lost relatives, unuttered truths, or, I don’t know, horcruxes. The object itself does not matter so much as its status as an answer, both to the literal questions posed by the plot and to the narrative as a whole, an answer that resolves the suspension that the book comprises and allows it to end.
This structure (problem + answer = resolution) is distinctly at odds with the inordinate violence that Murakami often employs, and Colorless Tsukuru is no exception. We are supposed to believe that the world of the novel is a charming one in which adults say things to each other like, “If you had told me then how you felt, of course I would have loved for you to be my girlfriend,” and, “Thinking freely about things means…letting pure logic soar free, giving a natural life to logic,” but also a graphic place filled with “pubic hair as wet as a rain forest,” “modestly sized breasts,” and the occasional brutal rape. The fundamental problem of desire — its unpredictably, its curious tendency to resist satisfaction — does not disrupt Murakami’s world of kindly old people and ancient magic and beige dialogue about the nature of reality. “Like me, his favorite thing is mulling over abstract ideas,” one character says at Tsukuru, and we get the impression that that may be the author’s inclination as well.
All of the hallmarks of Murakami’s style — the supernatural, the uncanny, the grotesque, music (this time, it’s “Le mal du pays,” from Franz Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage), metaphor, sex, philosophy — all are present in Colorless Tsukuru, but for perhaps the first time in his work, they seem flat and uninteresting, almost overused, as if the novel is a parody of his earlier work. There is nothing intrinsically bad about each of those elements, but at this point anyone who has read an article about the author will expect them. If they were employed in the novel to some effect, they would seem more like load-bearing columns than filigrees. As it stands, however, they largely serve to alienate.
It is hard to sympathize with a character like Tsukuru, who seems to have arisen out of a writing prompt that challenges the writer to create someone with no personality at all. He is the hero, our eyes and ears, but he is mostly hidden from the reader. We never learn too much about what really went on in the group of friends from which he was banished (“They just hung out someplace, and talked for hours.”), so the life-ending misery his expulsion causes seems incongruous. As a result, the redemption he finds on his quest does not ring particularly true either.
This is not to mention the problem of femininity, which is surely the greatest weakness in Colorless Tsukuru. Women are either utterly inscrutable, fabulously beautiful, stunningly efficient, or insane. The female body stuns the narrative and resists analysis. As the novel progresses, Tsukuru’s search for answers, his “pilgrimage,” turns into a hunt for the source and reason for one female character’s hysteria. The most that can be said without revealing too much is that this character falsely claims to have been raped. The best explanation Murakami’s shamanic wizardry can give for this is that it was a product of “hysteric confusion.”
That is, of course, not to say that Colorless Tsukuru is without merit. Several paragraphs are downright beautiful, filled with prose that is both delicate and strong. Murakami is certainly at his best when he composes the novel’s metafictional sections. The story a character tells to Tsukuru about his father’s time at a spa in the mountains is effective and memorable. These strengths are finally not enough to save the novel from the jarring elements that dominate its pages, however. Like the melody that begins “Le mal du pays,” Colorless Tsukuru is aloof, quiet, and finally, dissonant.
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.