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Mighty Muse

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Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern
$8 issue/$30 year 394A Ninth St., Brooklyn, NY 11215

In which the pretensions of the little literary magazine are taken for a ride

By Tai Moses

THE SAN FRANCISCO-BASED satirical magazine Might folded last year, but co-founder David Eggers is still at large, using his considerable editorial powers for good instead of evil. "Anybody with a computer and a genetic disorder can put a magazine together," Eggers said during Might's reign. It's not my place to go mucking around in a man's DNA, but there can be no doubt that Eggers owns a computer and he knows how to use it.

Eggers is known in these parts not just for Might but also for his Smarter Feller comic strip (which ran in Bay Area alternative newspapers, including this one) and his article "The F Word" (which appeared in San Francisco Metropolitan). Eggers left San Francisco for New York and a short-lived job at Esquire in 1997. His latest creation, cobbled together from the reanimated body parts of Might and a design aesthetic scavenged from the last century, is the agreeably eccentric and original literary journal Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern.

McSweeney's is a brilliant, irreverent, doggedly bumptious parody of the revered institution of the Little Literary Magazine. In pitch, it resembles its illustrious but ill-fated ancestor Might. But Eggers has given his new lit-mag a sort of retro Men in Tights atmosphere: it has the old-fashioned gentility of silly people wearing funny clothes. The editorial voice is articulate, courtly and waggish: imagine George Plimpton in a Groucho Marx nose and glasses.

It is Eggers' creative genius to make McSweeney's look as though it's been around for 100 years. He eschews color and uses no illustrations other than the tiny vignettes below the titles: black-and-white etchings of grand pianos and sailing ships and sleighs. The whole effect is tasteful and proper, kind of like the old New Yorker.

The debut issue's contributors include a couple of genuine novelists, but most are magazine writers and editors--and they can write like banshees. Eggers has unleashed their hairy imaginations upon the unsuspecting reading public, and the result is an idiosyncratic blend of short stories, essays, reviews, actual and pretend journalism, screenplay fragments, charts and other chronicles of indeterminate nature.

The fiction, in particular, is of a sort one rarely finds in literary magazines. In an area where people try so hard for meaning, for profundity and resonance, it's invigorating to read the work of talented writers who revel, cavort and wallow in glorious, flamboyant absurdity. There's no poetry, no autumn leaf imagery; no stories about loved ones wasting away from cancer.

Instead, there is Courtney Eldridge's "Young Professionals," a seamless, anxiety-riddled monologue about an obsessive-compulsive New Yorker, and David Foster Wallace's graphomanic "Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders (VIII)."

IN FOUR SHORT PAGES, Arthur Bradford's story "Mollusks" lampoons the tradition of contemporary short fiction and contains a sentence that, I think, decisively captures the pathos of an entire generation: "So we decided to take the giant slug home with us." Read it twice.

Mark O'Donnell's "Attack of the Fabulons" is a hilarious mini-teleplay with a comedic resonance that endures for maybe five minutes, but its real cognitive kick, as with many of the other pieces, comes from its surroundings. Immortalized on paper as thick as mohair and bright as Iceland and reproduced in staid serif typeface, a line like "The aliens have destroyed Earth's last remaining Gabor sister!" is as giddily tintinnabulous as 100 ice-cream trucks violating the quiet streets of Brentwood.

Eggers gleefully flouts literary convention by refusing to worship at the altar of the muse. McSweeney's Contributors' Notes, instead of probing the usual baggy suitcases of authorial inspiration, are themselves works of fiction, brief nonsensical paragraphs composed by staffer Adrienne Miller.

The journal is not without its flaws. There is nihilism; there is pointlessness; there are breaches of taste. But as Bradford sagely notes in "Mollusks": "Disgusting does not mean undesirable."

So McSweeney's isn't perfect, but it is sublimely ridiculous, enjoyably subversive and extremely well-written. I'm going to subscribe just as soon as I get paid for this article. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices for your beliefs. Sometimes, when you find a giant slug, you have to take it home with you.

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From the December 3-9, 1998 issue of Metro.

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