Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Review of McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories ed. by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon, as editor, met success upon pulling together his first anthology of short stories, Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. Focusing on plot and storytelling, Chabon solicited an experienced array of authors, asking them to above all entertain, but in sophisticated, perhaps occasionally throwback fashion. The success snowballing, Chabon was commissioned with pulling together a second anthology of likewise engaging, throwback stories. Looking to a new array of authors (save the recurrence of Stephen King), McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories (2004) matches the feat of Thrilling Tales.

Kicking off the anthology in devilish fashion is Margaret Atwood’s “Lusus Naturae”. About a demoness who finds her own sense of peace, Atwood incorporates stories of yore while taking the pitchforks of angry villagers to a new level. Dynamic wordsmithery on display even in short form, “What You Do Not Know You Want’ by David Mitchell tells of a black market merchant in Hawaii trying to track down an obscure Japanese dagger from a man who recently committed suicide from a rooftop. While a relatively standard piece of contemporary noir, Mitchell’s diction elevates this story above the crowd (notwithstanding the ending). The opposite of Mitchell’s story, Jonathan Lethem’s “Vivian Relf” is the subdued tale of a man meeting a woman at two different times in his life, and the differences in perception, as well as subjectivity of memory that result (emphasis on subdued).

A bit of real-world horror combined with the silver screen variety, “Minnow” by Ayelet Waldman tells of a woman who suffered a miscarriage in the last trimester of pregnancy, and is now trying to pick up the psychological pieces of her life. With the baby transmitter broadcasting strange children’s sounds, however, it’s tough to believe she actually lost her child. The success of that combination depends on the reader... In what seems the seed from which the eponymous novel sprouted, “Zeroville” tells the story of a Hollywood film editor obsessed with finding certain individual frames hidden secretly within longer film reels. Collecting the those he finds and putting them on his staircase walls, he eventually gets to the top of the landing and finds… something that Erickson seems so adept at conjuring.

Another story that would spawn a novel, “Lisey and the Madman” by Stephen King (the only crossover author from Chabon’s first McSweeney’s anthology) tells the story of a woman, whose Pulitzer Prize winning husband was murdered in front of her eyes, picking up the pieces of her life. Entirely balancing the mediocrity of King’s previous McSweeney’s entry, Lisey’s story (har har) possesses a fine swimming-between-the-lines authorial voice rooted in woman who subsequently comes across as real as sweat and pain. A bizarre story with bleeding edges, “7C” by Jason Roberts tells of a near-future biology lab and the experiments the scientists are doing that seem to go meta.

A Twilight Zone episode written in 2003, “The Miniaturist” by Heidi Julavits tells the story of a group of woman going on a trip to a lone, winter cabin, and the horrors they encounter there. Sound stereotypical? The story is about as stereotypical, and predictable as can be. Nee-NEE-Nee-nee Nee-NEE-Nee-nee (my Twilght Zone sounds). Wonderful in style but mundane in substance, “The Child” by Roddy Doyle tells of a man who starts hearing the voice of a small boy, and as a result, the names of women he’s dated in the past start to trigger in his mind. What connects all the women is where the story takes a left turn. While it tries to be sharp and clever, “Delmonico” by Lemony Snicket is more like using a butter knife to eat a steak: it gets the job done, but the whole time you’re thinking it’s not the right tool for the job. About a “witty” bartender listening to the tale of woe of one of her patrons, Snicket’s mindset is clear what in terms of what was intended for the story, only that execution is lacking the edge it needed to fully deliver.

A work piece of meta-fiction, in “Reports of Certain Events in London” China Mieville himself reviews meeting minutes for a political club he belongs to. Slightly pretentious, Mieville’s relationship with London is nevertheless artfully expressed. The evolution of the city described via the strange behavior of the roads, it is one of the best pieces in the anthology, if not its most literary. “The Fabled Light-house at Vina del Mar” by Joyce Carol Oates is about a lighthouse keeper and his trusty terrier, Mercury, who are stationed at a lighthouse on Cape Hatteras as cabin fever slowly sets in. While a story about an American, the tone is decidedly yesteryear British, giving the man’s tale airs that wonderfully juxtapose the mundanity of his day to day life with what unfurls. (As the afterword states, this story is a fleshing our of a fragment called “The Light House” found after Poe’s death.) And the last piece in the anthology is “Aickman’s Air Rifle” by Peter Straub. About four elderly men, all once involved in the publishing industry in some fashion (publisher, writer, reviewer, etc.), the unlikely crew convalesce together in a sanitorium. When one of their number disappears, things really get curmudgeonly.

All told, this collection is an improvement on Thrilling. This is likely due to a couple of standout stories, namely those by King, Erickson, and Mieville. The remainder not poor in quality, they fall in line with content from Thrilling, meaning if you enjoyed Chabon’s first anthology, there is a strong chance this second will also butter your bread. For relaxing reading, these plot-centric stories meet such expectations.

The following are the fifteen stories anthologized in McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories:

Lusus Naturae by Margaret Atwood
What You Do Not Know You Want by David Mitchell
Vivian Relf by Jonathan Lethem
Minnow by Ayelet Waldman
Zeroville by Steve Erickson
Lisey and the Madman by Stephen King
7C by Jason Roberts
The Miniaturist by Heidi Julavits
The Child by Roddy Doyle
Delmonico by Lemony Snicket
The Scheme of Things by Charles D'Ambrosio
The Devil of Delery by Poppy Z. Brite
Reports of Certain Events in London by China MiƩville
The Fabled Light-house at Vina del Mar by Joyce Carol Oates
Mr. Aickman's Air Rifle by Peter Straub

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