If Dave Eggers keeps going at this rate, the next McSweeney’s is going to have to come over to your house and cook you a meal. Every issue of his journal has been bigger and fancier and more conceptually grand than the one before it. The newest is a comely hardcover book peppered with extensive full-color reproductions of visual art, plus a CD with soundtracks to every article, played by They Might Be Giants and others. How far can the Magazine of the Moment climb with the hot breath of backlash on its neck?
Founded as a sort of group home for castoffs of the publishing world and taking its name from a family in-joke, McSweeney’s appears to be imported from some alternate universe where wildly eccentric lit-mags can be prestigious, profitable, and published more than a couple of times. (There are now twice as many issues of McSweeney’s as there were of Wyndham Lewis’s Blast and Hugo Ball’s Cabaret Voltaire combined.) It still specializes in wonderful stuff for which there’s no other conceivable outlet—a pencil draft of a Chris Ware story and a lengthy selection from Walker Evans’s picture postcard collection in this issue, an interview with Ted Koppel about Marcus Aurelius in #5. Naturally, private muttering about the Eggers mafia and their clannishness and gimmickry is fashionable; some of it’s merited. But they did it, and nobody else has. Name a single literary journal that’s better right now, or don’t player-hate.
Of course, Blast and Cabaret Voltaire had something that McSweeney’s doesn’t: an explicit aesthetic mandate beyond “oh—this looks cool” and “well, why not?” Exiled South African writer Breyten Breytenbach’s “Notes From the Middle World,” a call for statelessness in the new issue, is as close to staking out ideological territory as Eggers’s brainchild has gotten. Still, the one manifesto that’s appeared in the magazine, Eggers’s only-pretending-to-be-mock-indignant “Author’s and Book Enjoyer’s Bill of Rights, at Least Insofar as the Book Jacket Is Concerned,” in #4, actually does say a lot about what makes it tick: design.
Eggers’s own writing, and the writing he publishes, are essentially high modernist: They demand that nothing about writing can be taken for granted. (Lydia Davis’s mercifully brief “Oral History With Hiccups” is, swear to God, an experiment in spacing.) His design sense works the same way. The journal’s most reliable running gag is calling attention to ordinarily transparent design details: announcing a new policy on the serial comma, noting on a blank page that the story before it “used to be longer.” Even the gimmicks double as formal experiments. Unfortunately, the soundtrack to #6 doesn’t add much beyond excess. Philip Glass’s accompaniment for the late Candy Jernigan’s meticulous drawings of blue rocks is touching and appropriate, and one of TMBG’s songs gets points for inspiring the issue’s best story, Zadie Smith’s effervescent “The Girl With Bangs,” but the incidental music generally has one foot in “too literal,” the other in “not relevant.” (Image: Karl Haendel’s photo of a farm with a car bearing a sign that says “Grassroots Internet Revolution.” Music: TMBG singing the words “grassroots Internet revolution.”)
How seriously should you take these extravagant gestures? Eggers rarely lets you know. A three-steps-ahead-of-you joker, he treats literature the same way Andy Kaufman treated stand-up comedy. McSweeney’s delivers blatant silliness and found curios and serious reportage with the same poker face. Lawrence Wechsler’s splendid, attentive art criticism sits next to post-Donald Barthelme short stories by cult heroes and never-before-printeds. And there are always pieces that might or might not be put-ons. Yes, Saskia Hamilton is an expert on Robert Lowell’s letters, but his florid analysis of doodles 13-year-old Lowell sent home from camp triggers my blarney detector. If it’s for real, the joke’s on me.
Which makes it even funnier. If you’re going to make a habit of elaborate pranks, it’s wise to outnumber them with even more elaborate gestures that have to be pranks and aren’t. The blade of irony is dulled unless it’s constantly whetted with absolute, unimpeachable sincerity. Imposing a here’s-some-strange-stuff-I-like aesthetic on an ongoing journal (and now a book-publishing operation) comes at a price, though. Eggers’s most serious weakness is his sweet tooth for writers whose stylistic quirks are a lot like his own. It’s a good bet that Samantha Hunt’s “Bathymetry” made it into #6 on the strength of “the house was rotten with her stench, like a rotten, rotten stench rot”; it’s hard to tell if Gina O’Mara’s calling her story “After This, Everything Got Louder and No One Could Be Heard” is a deliberate gibe at her editor or not.
Actually, that confusion happens a lot with Eggers, and the eccentric uniformity of tone he cultivates, at least in the magazine’s fiction, is to blame. Mcsweeneys.org, which Eggers has nothing to do with, is nominally a parody of the magazine’s actual Web site at mcsweeneys.net, but it’s often indistinguishable from the real thing. And real-live-person Neal Pollack’s burlesques of egocentric journalism are so close to his publisher’s sense of humor that some hapless reporters thought he was just an Eggers pseudonym.
The sound of snickering can drown anything out, and McSweeney’s tends to let its jokes go on too far, in the hope that the overkill will itself be funny. (Jonathan Lethem’s This Shape We’re In would’ve made a crisp, amusing short story for the magazine; as an entire volume from McSweeney’s Books, it comes off like one of those Saturday Night Live movie spin-offs.) The form of Eggers’s enterprises serves the content so diligently and wittily that getting past it to the content itself can be hard.
But even though his curatorial persona can be overwhelming, Eggers is the best and rarest kind of ironist: the kind who uses inappropriate tone to spice up his natural curiosity and conviction, rather than to mask their absence. McSweeney’s #6 begins with Eggers’s story of his discovery that the actual Timothy McSweeney is a mentally ill artist related to one of his interns; at the end, he writes, “We respectfully dedicate this and all issues to the real Timothy, and nod our heads in restless kinship with him, and wish him comfort and joy.” That head-nodding bit is barefacedly over-the-top, but the joke is that it’s not the reverse of what he actually means. In a situation like this, there’s no ordinary way to express compassion that isn’t a cliché, so Eggers’s overemphasis is just another way to avoid the insincerity of received ideas. It’s hard to fault him for editing his magazine in the same spirit.