Save for a few moldering back issues gathering dust in rural barbershops or drawing preposterous bids on eBay, pulp- and popular-fiction magazines went the way of Vitalis hair oil and fake-turtleneck dickeys sometime in the 1970s. Out of step with the times, these bastions of populist literature passed quietly into publishing history.
With them, asserts Michael Chabon, went a literary tradition. McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales represents Chabon’s stab at resurrecting that tradition—and, in the process, liberating short fiction from what he perceives as its introspective malaise. As editor (or guest editor, if you count this as the latest issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly), Chabon maintains that the stories that filled the pages of periodicals like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, along with such smarmy counterparts as Argosy and True, pivoted less on emotional insight—the stuff that drives “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story,” to use his windy pejorative—than on solid storytelling and compelling plots.
It’s reductive and somewhat disingenuous to polarize short fiction so neatly, particularly when several of the book’s 20 efforts hinge on emotional insights (Dave Eggers’s “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly” and Laurie King’s “Weaving the Dark” among them) or are written by authors just as likely to turn up in the pages of The New Yorker with a dreaded moment-of-truth story. But the pop-lit magazines Chabon champions did provide regular venues for highbrow yarn-spinners like Twain and Faulkner, as well as career springboards for such durable latter-day scribes as Kurt Vonnegut and Elmore Leonard (who returns to his roots with a story here). The creative flexibility this implies is inarguably a thing of the past, and Chabon is right to mourn its passing.
Despite the mixed results that are inevitable with any high-concept anthology, and the underlying nostalgia, Chabon’s homage largely fulfills its retroactive goal. That it does so without resorting too frequently to pastiche is a tribute to his influence. Indeed, the deliberate pace with which Chabon gets his 2000 superhero epic The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay moving, and his Gogol-esque preoccupation with its tangential details, reveals a proclivity for elaborate diversion. For the most part the contributors rise to his example, and it’s a happy surprise that MMToTT stirs the emotions as often as it piques the imagination.
The majority of its stories are good-natured larks that unabashedly embrace the trappings of the genre; indeed, many are set near the turn of the last century, arguably the heyday of the pulps. These include Jim Shepard’s existential he-man vs. nature showdown “Tedford and the Megalodon,” Glen David Gold’s revenge-by-pachyderm fable “The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter,” and Karen Joy Fowler’s “Private Grave 9,” a mummy tale that slyly eschews moldy bandages and lurking.
Ironically, the best entries share the same contemporary preoccupation with narrative and temporal displacement that dominate films like Memento, Donnie Darko, and Spider. Fantasy stalwart Michael Moorcock’s “The Case of the Nazi Canary,” a 1930s murder mystery in which a certain Teutonic megalomaniac makes a career-killing blunder, and Chabon’s own “The Martian Agent,” which takes place in a 19th-century U.S. that never seceded from British rule, make inventive use of alternate histories. Stephen King’s “The Tale of Gray Dick,” Nick Hornby’s “Otherwise Pandemonium,” and Carol Emshwiller’s poignant “The General” mine similar territory.
Other, more straightforward genre pieces, like Leonard’s deceptively folksy “How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman” and Sherman Alexie’s gruesome “Ghost Dance,” are equally engrossing. Only a few stories fall flat outright, among them Michael Crichton’s wan noir retread “Blood Doesn’t Come Out” and Harlan Ellison’s jokey “Goodbye to All That.” Kelly Link’s fractured fairy tale “Cat Skin,” though out of place among its pragmatic peers, is nevertheless a delight.
The highlight of the collection is Rick Moody’s wrenching “The Albertine Notes,” a novel-worthy reflection on collective grief and remembrance that deftly weaves MMToTT‘s retroactivity with more immediate, all too familiar concerns. Set in New York City after the unexplained nuclear destruction of Lower Manhattan, “Albertine” posits a near future in which a memory-enhancing drug’s access to the past offers more incentive to live than the bleak despair of the present. A former staff writer for a vaguely familiar East Village alt- weekly is hired to ferret out the narcotic’s origin and history, and his unexpected findings offer a precarious chance for global redemption.
Moody’s melancholy yarn doubles back on itself too many times to count, and establishing a linear sequence becomes not just impossible but beside the point. “Albertine” occasionally bogs down in such narrative trickery, but its overall effect is an immediacy and clarity that are surely what Chabon had in mind. Whether or not it fully captures the sprit of its forebears, MMToTT must have left its editor feeling like Shepard’s shark-battling Tedford as he paddled to his destiny: “He was in a region of astounding stories. And he had always lived for astounding stories.”