This is the very first issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern that I have read, though not for lack of trying. Its title (if you can call it that) is “Rejoice,” and is clearly a nod to the recent election of Barack Obama as U.S. President, and all the warm, gooey-on-the-inside sort of feelings that might entail for you. On the surface, Issue 30’s stories appear surprisingly, well, depressing for such a lauded event.
What “Rejoice” actually seeks to do is outline the human condition: specifically, there is a distinct difference between “hope” and “inspiration.” “Rejoice” is full of stories about sad people; occasionally, as with the story by Michael Cera (which was to me a highlight of the collection), it is about terrible people, but people regardless.
Bill Cotter’s “Pfaff II” opened the collection off on a desolate note, detailing a nameless, historyless narrator’s relationship with another troubled patient. It’s an existentially depressing tale because it chronicles a series of events which have no apparent purpose or particular resolution. Yet it occurred to me while reading that the story is, despite its sadness, detailing the perfectly ordinary: two mentally-unstable people in a hospital for the mentally unstable. We as readers seek to dramatize (perhaps the narrator is really just a hopeless romantic, shoved in an asylum unjustly, and looking for a way to bridge the gap of his personal loneliness), rather than acknowledge the ordinary or routine nature of the disaffected, or question the reliability of a narrator residing in a mental institution. This same general philosophy applies to one of the more detailed stories (Bussinger’s “Foothill Boulevard”), about a distant and unlikeable narrator in a loveless, utilitarian relationship who chases deadend opportunities to fulfill some internal obligation to herself. Once again we are treated to the perfectly ordinary (subpar relationship, and a fixer-upper house in a bad neighborhood) with a gravitas and emotional weight that makes it appear to resonate with a greater meaning or a metaphorical overlay. It’s actually the simple machinations of people being people.
Not all the stories are that depressing; some flirt with unintelligible science fiction (Shelley Oria’s “The Beginning of a Plan”); some talk about assholes (Cera’s “Pinecone”); some are interesting snapshots of father-son dynamics (Moffett’s “Further Interpretations of Real Life Events”). All in all, it was an odd collection of stories that was misadvertised by its collection’s title, I think. Perhaps that was just McSweeney’s attempt to thwart its audience (haha! you tricksters and your meta-humor!) all along. I was a little underwhelmed, in the end, but that may be because my capacity for short stories is minimal unless they’re satirical. Here’s hoping that Issue 31 is more my speed.