McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales
edited by Michael Chabon
Published by Vintage Books
480 pages, 2003
What to Expect When Expecting So Much
Reviewed by Thom Didato
Expectation can create one sticky wicket when it comes to being a reader (and a reviewer). It is said that you can't judge a book by its cover, but we all do this to some extent. There are those regular readers who, when walking into their local bookstore, head directly towards the mass market racks where the slick-covered smaller books of murder and fantasy reign supreme. Then there are those people who only approach the latest award winners, the literary novels delivered in the more visually subtle and larger format of the quality trade paperback.
McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales seems like an attempt to confuse such people with a collection of strange stories from an even stranger grouping of authors. The collection is edited by Pulitzer winner Michael Chabon and contributors include thriller-ifick Michael Crichton, lit darling Dan Chaon, crimester Elmore Leonard, and senior scaremeister Stephen King, among others, all serving up a substantial 480 page collection with 1950s pulp art retro cover.
Is this modern pulp? Or authors at play? It's left for the reader to decide.
The idea behind McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales is almost as interesting as the collection itself. Editor Chabon prefaces:
For the last year or so I have been boring my friends, and not a few strangers, with semi-coherent, ill-reasoned, and doubtless mistaken rant on the subject of the American short story as it is currently written
Chabon goes on to explain his concern with those who either expect or define the successful short story by the "moment of life" standard which typically graced the pages of The New Yorker in years past. Forgotten is the era of plot-driven works by Chandler, Hammett, Lovecraft and others. Tales that told a story, or as Chabon theorizes, "contained enough plot and color to support an entire full-feature Hollywood adaptation." So, with the blessing of McSweeney's founder, Dave Eggers, Chabon set out to do something about this. He has amassed a varied group of established genre and "literary" authors and assigned each the task of telling a thrilling tale.
With the premise known and expectations created, several questions come to mind: Would those literary authors use this book as merely an exercise in plot? Or should we expect them to actually bring something new to the table? Could we expect such well known authors of genre fiction as Elmore Leonard, Stephen King and company to blow away the "artsy" authors with their straightforward storytelling skill? Or would their writing be exposed in some sort of ill-advised comparison to the National Book Award and Pulitzer nominees?
Strangely, the title's emphasis on the word, Thrilling, creates one false expectation. Most of the tales here are appealing, eerie and quite engrossing, but it's not a thrill-a-minute kind of collection. Jim Shepard starts off with something lurking beneath the ice of Antarctica and eventually off the bow of his kayak in "Tedford and the Megalodon."
Awake, a movement circled him. The dorsal emerged, its little collar of foam at its base, and flexed and dripped, itself as tall as a man. The entire animal went by like a horrible parade. He estimated its length at fifty feet. Its thickness at twelve. It was a trolley car with fins.
Later in the collection, Sherman Alexie gives new meaning to Custer's Last Stand in his story "Ghost Dance," where the dearly departed soldiers return as flesh-eating-zombies, wreaking havoc with the living in a small Montana town.
That night, as the Seventh Calvary rose from their graves in Montana, Edgar Smith slept in his bed in Washington, D.C., and dreamed for the first time about the death of George Armstrong Custer
Though there is action in these two stories, neither of them are particularly plot-driven. (The same can be said of Karen Joy Fowler's "Private Grave 9" and Kelly Link's equally clever account, "Catskin.") Instead, the success of these tales lay within the rich atmosphere each creates, a strange allure of place (not plot) that forces the reader to turn the page.
There are some clearly plot-driven works: the fate of a bank robber-murderer is revealed in Elmore Leonard's "How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman" and Michael Moorcock's "The Case of the Nazi Canary" gives us an nice little murder mystery with Nazis to boot.
One of the more entertaining tales in this regard comes from Nick Hornby, whose teenage narrator obtains fast forward capability and insight into the future with the purchase of an old VCR. If not taken too seriously, the story is an entertaining one. It could have easily served as a script for an episode in Steven Spielberg's failed TV venture, Amazing Stories (and this is meant to be compliment). How Hornby's narrator uses the information gained by his new power is a quite hilarious:
One thing about knowing the world is going to end: It makes you a lot less nervous about the whole dating thing. So that's a plus.
I was not pleasantly shocked or surprised by the stories here. I did not find myself prone to seeing any of the authors in a new light. Nor do I fear, will most readers. If you like Stephen King, then you are likely going to enjoy his latest installment from his Dark Tower universe, "The Tale of Gray Dick." If you are a big Crichton fan, you'll like his story, "Blood Doesn't Come Out." On the flip side, if you don't already have a favorable opinion of the given author, their offering here probably won't change your mind.
This is true, also, of Glen David Gold's mystery "The Tears of Squonk, and Whatever Happened Thereafter." And fans will certainly appreciate Rick Moody's highly entertaining story "In The Albertine Notes" where a reporter uncovers a new way of seeing -- and better yet -- remembering things. Unexpectedly enough, the only writer here who dares to take a serious leap of faith when it comes to a dramatic change in writing style is none other than Mr. McSweeney's himself, Dave Eggers. In that vein, I'm not so sure I respected his story, "Up The Mountain Coming Down Slowly" more than I enjoyed it, though I did want to find out what would happen to Rita and her Kilimanjaro-climbing colleagues.
The collection ends with a to-be-continued tale from the editor. In Chabon's alternative history tale, "The Martina Agent, A Planetary Romance," a young boy's story takes him from a still colonial-controlled America to the streets of London. Chabon's story is somewhat symbolic of the entire collection: It is well-written and interesting, if not downright intriguing, and yet, somewhat unsatisfying. The reader here is far too often left wanting more. And this sentiment serves as both a compliment and criticism of the collection as a whole.
Fans of these authors will enjoy their representative stories in McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. I suspect that readers will love some stories and simply not care for others. Nevertheless, this reader had higher expectations: that the distinction between the two writing schools would be better blurred, and that readers would come away with a newfound appreciation of a particular writer, or style of writing. That said, Chabon, McSweeney's and the authors who participated in the collection should be commended for the effort, while this reader reserves hope that McSweeney's Second Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales will meet even higher expectations. | May 2003
Thom Didato is the founding editor for the online literary and arts magazine, failbetter.com. His own fiction has appeared in various literary journals and can be read in forthcoming issues of Gargoyle and 3am Magazine.