Magazine Review #4:
McSweeney’s 36

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McSweeney’s 36 can hardly be called a “magazine,” though it’s difficult to know just what to call it. A friendly human-head box filled with an assortment of printed matter would be more accurate. And what an assortment it is.

This box contains: an annotated chunk of Michael Chabon’s lost novel, a handwritten, hand-drawn mini-story, a two-act play, a Voice of Witness booklet, an imaginary screenplay, a pulpy adventure story, a collection of new letters and stories, a chapter from Adam Levin’s The Instructions, a painting serialized over four postcards, a 150-year-old excerpt from a Scottish minister’s book, and a scroll of fortunes. Wow.

In his introduction to the issue, Art Director (and managing editor, along with Jordan Bass) Brian McMullen writes, “I’d love nothing more than a chance to crack your forehead open along a tidy seam and give the contents of your mind a nice gore-free sift. This McSweeney’s issue was conceived as an approximation of what that experience might feel like for the sifter (without, admittedly, any regard at all for the feelings or the rights of our mustachioed fantasy siftee).  What would your head look like inside?”

Sifting is exactly what this issue elicits. Exploring, seeking, and examining are apt words too. Reading this issue is an exercise in curiosity. The physical act of pulling each piece from the box and flipping through it is as much a part of the experience as the actual reading. And with 642 pages of content, it’s not likely to be read in one sitting. I pulled a random book from the box every morning, tossed it in my bag, and read everything over the course of a few weeks. Reading each piece in a different locale—on the train, outside on a lunch break, in a coffee shop, or on the couch—feels like an inevitable element of the issue and one that adds another layer of perception because a change in our environment generates a change in our headspace.

The idea of exploring what exists inside one’s head is a stunning concept for a literary magazine, and it works so well here because of the sheer diversity of content, but also because of the tangible nature of the thing. McSweeney’s 36 feels like an argument for printed matter—a reading experience that simply can’t be replicated digitally. Touching each bit of printed matter—and in some cases unfolding or piecing together—is a highlight of the issue. The strange and uniquely physical experience of encountering the unexpected with our hands would be lost if this collection lived in a digital space.

The first piece that jumped out at me was a small, illustrated booklet by Sophia Cara Frydman. It’s an inviting, hand-written, hand-drawn story that captures a brief moment between two strangers on the street. The story, which is really more like a small musing, is printed on notepaper-sized cardstock and drawn with red and black ink. Both the story and the drawings could stand on their own, but when put together the result is a beautiful, tiny moment that can be slipped into a back pocket.

Fountain City, an unfinished novel “wrecked” by Michael Chabon is especially interesting, not for the novel excerpt itself (though it’s written as well as anything Chabon ever wrote) but for the accompanying annotations, which act as a sort of cracking open of Chabon’s brain. I may have actually gained more insight into the act of writing from these annotations than from any book about writing I’ve ever read because Chabon is surprisingly open and detailed about his process. The annotations range from highly personal autobiography[i] to analysis of elements of craft[ii] to character motivations[iii] and even general definitions. Plus, Chabon confirms something I’ve always assumed: he makes up words.[iv] The annotations are fascinating in part because of their personal nature, but also because they offer true and clear explanations for the failure of Fountain City. I take great comfort in the fact that Pulitzer-prize winning novelists fail too.

Perhaps the bravest piece (and much of the work here is indeed brave) included in this issue is the Voice of Witness booklet by Ma Su Mon. Voice of Witness is a nonprofit book series that empowers those most affected by contemporary social injustice. Using oral history as a foundation, the series depicts human rights crises around the world through the stories of the people who experience them. Ma Su Mon’s oral history, recorded and edited by Maggie Lemere and Zoë West, is one of fifteen narratives in the forthcoming Voice of Witness book, Nowhere to Be Home. Ma Su Mon recounts her life in Burma under the rule of a violent junta. She became involved in a pro-democracy movement in 1996, at the time the government shut down the country’s universities. She tells about her arrest and subsequent confinement in prison. Released at the age of twenty-two, she had to flee her country and move to Thailand, where she is currently pursuing a career as a journalist.

The inclusion of this booklet is important because it carries an entirely different set of expectations, as opposed to say, Bicycle Built for Two: An imaginary Mike Myers/Dana Carvey buddy comedy about a pro baseball team and a tandem bike. The fact that these two pieces—so far apart on the literary spectrum—can co-exist in the same collection speaks volumes about the purpose of the issue and the intentional pairing of dissimilar content. In what other context might it make sense to bundle together a human rights oral history and a comedic screenplay? Therein lies the beauty of this concept; a collection of work that is meant to be mimetic of the head must contain a random assortment of content or else it wouldn’t capture the complexity of our minds.

Everything in this box feels special, like it was created with care and placed inside the box with purpose, which isn’t to say that it will all resonate equally with each reader. I connected to Chabon’s piece, the Voice of Witness booklet, and Frydman’s illustrated mini-story. Maybe you’ll fall in love with the chapter from Adam Levin’s remarkable book, The Instructions, or maybe you’ll latch onto Wajahat Ali’s play The Domestic Crusaders, about a modern Muslim Pakistani American family, or perhaps it’ll be Malik and Adbul from Colm Tóíbín’s story (almost a novella), “The Street” that catches your attention. There’s an abundance of material here—surely something for everyone—and if I dig through the box again, I know I’ll connect to different pieces in new ways. Issue 36—all of its wonderful parts and pieces—truly is a peek inside the peculiar head of McSweeney’s.

[i] “Second reference to suicide in the first four pages of the novel. A recurrent motif in my work, in particular in W.B.  and T.Y.P.U., which traffic heavily in the idea. This is curious because I have never once, even in my lowest moments, contemplated killing myself, not even idly.”

[ii] “Here the key theme and plot element of the restoration of the splendor of the pre-exilic kingdom of Israel, and in particular of the Temple of Jerusalem, pokes its half-submerged head a little higher out of the water. Such foreshadowings mirror the compositional process itself, in which things you write seemingly at random and in passing—like the father’s having a “gangster body” in an early draft of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, or a brief mention of the Golem of Prague in the first iteration of Kavalier & Clay—later turn out to be the unsuspected seeds of thick, sturdy vines of story.”

[iii] “My struggle and ultimate failure to clearly, convincingly, and above all integrally motivate Harry Klezmer to go to Paris, so that he could fall in love and get his heart broken and find his calling in life, etc, referred to in note 31, was doubtless among the primary causes of the wreck of F.C. By integrally I mean that his reasons for going to Paris ought themselves to form in part, indeed to determine, the plot and theme of the novel. This principle—that in a novel nothing, not even accidents, can happen by accident—is fundamental, or at any rate, it is to me.”

[iv] “A nonce word based on the Greek root nephos, “cloud,” echoing mephitic and suggesting the bushy beard of some old-time profit of Mormonism, with its tale of the lost tribe of Nephi. Over the years I have tried to slip the following made-up words past the reader: aetataureate, cheminations, busculation, cirrate, lingostic, nephokinesis (nephos again!), omniveillant. As far as I know, none of these words has ever been used, by anybody including myself, ever again, doubtless for good reason.”


Nancy Smith is a writer and graphic designer. Her work has been published in Paper, The Believer, Seattle Weekly, Resonance, and Communication Arts. She has an M.A. in Media Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. She is currently working on a Ph.D in Communication and Culture at Indiana University. She blogs about books, design, and technology here: somequietfuture.com More from this author →