Timothy McSweeney's Windfall Republic

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Timothy McSweeney belongs to the nineteenth-century. He wanders loose at the end of this twentieth century...

Issue Number 3, Summer 1999

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Wednesday, March 22 2000, 10:19 PM


Timothy McSweeney belongs to the nineteenth-century. He wanders loose at the end of this twentieth century, yes, even with Internet access emerging from his editorial pupik. It apparently being his fate to advance into the twenty-first century rather than fade gracefully into the nineteenth, McSweeney has put the best face on ill fortune and established a journal to speak truths small, medium-sized and possibly of larger fit.

A curious reader lifts the journal from out of its newsstand lodging, where it nuzzles against the Paris Review and Plimpton's rickety shenanigans, and immediately notes that the cover aesthetics of McSweeney's reek of Victorian publishing. Crowded, quirky, typographically insane, and leaking perverse humor. The typographic packing job, reminiscent of a very early Sears catalog, is so tight that an entire short-short story has been packed onto the spine. As one of the cover aphorisms opines, "Editing for space is too easy to be moral." Even where, deep in the issue's innards, a left-opening gatefold for graphics leaves an empty page, the editor, ever conscious of the moral possibilities of space, tucks in a barely-visible disquisition on unknowability and Icelandic printers.

There is a lost dignity in having one's name emblazoned across the cover of a literary journal, and McSweeney's dignity should only be enhanced by a clear public statement that I bought this crammed, thick journal with the thought that it would be excellent accompaniment for sessions of joyous bowel music. "Here is the efflux of the soul," wrote a nineteenth-century comerado who understood confluences and fluxes both physical and metaphysical.

And what a smooth-working, silky laxative this journal is! Within two predecessor issues, McSweeney's has attracted a marvelous assembly of writers and other rejects. Part of the journal's reputation is as a haven for material that has been rejected, killed, mutilated or otherwise ignobly defenestrated by more thoughtful, conscientious editors. Still, the soul speaks through serendipity as much as through immediate suitability for publication, and the journal willingly risks rejects. Whatever the publishing formula, McSweeney's is a journal that dances neatly between humor and thoughtfulness, between ironic self-reference and absorbing fiction. There is a keen sense of editorial personality here. Readers end up liking this editor and his style that is postmodern and deliciously antiquated within in the same line. Yet, as the prolonged and very strange introductory notes make clear, there is substantial question as to whether McSweeney is a real McSweeney or simply an editor-effect, an effulgent mirage arising from the printed pages. Although the editor is rumored to be Dave Eggers, closeted in a Brooklyn studio, I prefer to picture McSweeney himself, standing handsome and smiling in the sunlight.

Whatever the editorial reality or unreality, there are the brimming journal pages themselves. "Banvard's Folly (Or, How Do You Loose a Three-Mile Painting?)" opens this issue with an essay by Paul Collins on the rise, triumph and disappearance of John Banvard, America's most famous and richest artist of the nineteenth century. This well-told story, full of detail and a keen sense of history, relates how Banvard gained the world's attention through his panoramas of the West, together with how eventually he lost out to the far more business-savvy P.T. Barnum.

The longest essay of the issue and its centerpiece is Gary Greenberg's "In the Kingdom of the Unabomber." Greenberg opens with the wryly ambiguous line "The first time I got a letter from the Unabomber, I had my wife open it" and continues into the story of how a psychologist starts out to write Theodore Kaczynski's biography and encounters Manhattan publishers instead. Greenberg begins with a fully persuasive description of the manipulation of psychiatry towards the state's legal agenda. He proceeds to describe his own entanglement with Kaczynski, together with the humming presence of media after a hot story and exclusive rights. In his anti-modernism, Kaczynski has become a demonic target image for consumption by precisely the same technologies that he loathes.

For fiction offerings, we get Ken Foster's short story "Red Dresses," which opens at a cross-dressing party and closes weeks later in a hospital after a queer bashing. The journal prints the story in one column together a facing column with comment from former Bad Subjectian Ana Marie Cox and a response from Ken Foster. It's a sharp device for critical reading, and especially to note how violence gets 벥ad out' even in supposedly critical reading.

Other fiction bombs. E. Weinberger's "Plausibles: Provisional Beginnings for Stories that Might Never Be Written, but Could," consists of 121 opening lines for have yet to find a second line to continue their theme. We await a sequel with final lines only, after which we can imagine even more complexly about the story between. Unfortunately, there's a risk that Weinberger will take that suggestion seriously. Tom Tomorrow's micro-short reads like Cornell Woolrich imitating a postmodern koan. Entitled "A Meaningless Story Fragment Cynically Designed to Appeal to the Editors of This Journal, Whose Weakness for Phrases Such as 냯me On, Pops,' Is Widely Known & Remarked Upon," the story has the remarkable effect of eliminating any distinction between review citation and wholesale copyright infringement. Here's the sum of the story text:

끮d I would have gotten away with it, too,' the old man snarled, 멦 not for you kids --- and that infernal talking hamster of yours!'

냯me on, pops,' said the policeman, though not unkindly. 뙯u'll have plenty of time to think about that where you're going.'

If that was a trap set by Tom Tomorrow's cunning lawyers, not to worry: we're all judgment-proof here. A bit too often, the journal's fiction selections seem more concerned with the quality of the humor than the quality of the writing. That's not a bad criterion, but it is ultimately self-limiting.

Yet where there is humor, there is life. Timothy McSweeney's Windfall Republic definitely has life.

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