Onyx reviews: McSweeney's
Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales edited by Michael Chabon
Genre short stories have fallen out of favor with the literary establishment,
or so editor Michael Chabon would have readers believe. The current trend in
short fiction is for "contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth
revelatory" stories, the kind most often found in magazines like The
Saturday Evening Post or The New Yorker.
In McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, Chabon brings together a
collection of authors, both genre writers who no longer have much market in the
short form, and authors of literary fiction who are "chafing under the
strictures of the Ban" against plot. He charged them with a simple task—provide plotted stories that hearken back to the days of the pulp magazines.
He's assembled an impressive assortment of writers. In the genre corner, he
elicited tales from Stephen King (a Dark Tower novel excerpt), Michael Crichton—whose story of revenge sought against a domineering mother is reminiscent of
the pseudonymous thrillers he wrote as John Lange to earn money while in medical
school—Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman and Elmore Leonard, who hasn't published
short stories in decades because there's no market for western short stories.
The title of Leonard's story, "How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl
and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman" is almost as long as the story itself
and pretty much sums it up, but it's a charming tale.
Among the authors normally considered non-genre, or literary, Chabon extracted
contributions from Glen David Gold, Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers, Aimee Bender and
others, including the first part of a serial novel by Chabon himself.
As with any anthology, each reader will come away from the collection with his
or her own set of favorites. What works for one reader may fail for another. It
would be a rare occurrence to find a collection from such a diverse array of
writers where every story is a winner for every reader. The beauty of a
collection like this is that it provides an introduction to a wide variety of
authors and readers may discover someone new whose other work they want to seek
Among the anthology's offerings are a story told in stodgy men's club (Gaiman),
a self-aware story about a writer struggling to create a story for this
anthology while simultaneously participating in a time travel experiment (Chris
Offutt), an alternate history murder mystery where the prime suspect is Adolf
Hitler (Michael Moorcock), and the self-discovery tale of a woman walking up
Mount Kilimanjaro (Eggars).
The gem in the collection, though, is "The Albertine Notes," a
techno-thriller novella by Rick Moody that takes place in New York after a dirty
nuclear device destroyed most of Manhattan. In the aftermath, a new drug called
Albertine emerges that allows users to relive memories from their lives as if
they were experiencing them. The drug's pleasures aren't with cost—it creates
gaps in people's memory when they aren't using it. The collective history of the
people of New York is at risk of being forgotten. It's a clever, intelligent
story that has a special resonance in the post-9/11 era.
The cover is a reproduction of a 1940 pulp mystery digest, the paperback and the
paper itself recall the classic pulps, but there's nothing musty about the
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