The Real Thing
Amy Fusselman Rises Above the McSweeney's Shtick
University Bookstore on Fri May 18 at 7 pm; Elliott Bay Book Company on Sat May 19 at 8 pm.
What does it mean that someone thinks they need a cigarette many times a day? What does it mean to need fire like that? Fire all the time?
Does it mean you are too watery? Does it mean you feel you have no spark?...
My dad smoked Kools. Since he was twelve, he smoked. He quit in his fifties.
That is why he had emphysema. That is why he died, basically.
My dad is dead. And as I type this, by the window, on the rainy day, I am alive, yes. I am living.
--from The Pharmacist's Mate, by Amy Fusselman
The fourth book in the McSweeney's series, Amy Fusselman's The Pharmacist's Mate is the story of her father's death intertwined with two other narratives: the story of Fusselman's attempts to become pregnant, and excerpts from her father's WWII journal aboard the George E. Pickett, where he was the pharmacist's mate.
"I actually don't think the book is a memoir," Fusselman told me. (I know her through my husband; they played in a punk band together in Columbus, Ohio.) "The one thing I really like about the book, the one thing I'm really proud of, is that it's more than one voice." She simply calls it "nonfiction," and the book is filled with lovely, minimalist prose that shows Fusselman's training as a poet.
But Fusselman, though she had plenty of artistic and literary life before Dave Eggers--she produced the nationally distributed zine Bunnyrabbit for four years in the 1990s, has written for numerous tiny and large publications, and is involved in New York experimental theater--is now considered a McSweeney's author. Which made me wonder something: Is Dave Eggers' self-conscious-about-being-self-conscious McSweeney's shtick, slathered over everything he touches, sabotaging the work of his best writers? The problem is certainly not publicity--Eggers' anti-P.R. has served to bring far more attention to these writers' work than an ordinary campaign would ever have done. Yet it seems the price a McSweeney's author might have to pay for a guaranteed mention in the New York Times Book Review is to be forever associated with him.
And these writers have, so far, been treated somewhat unseriously by the mainstream media--which has, of course, simply followed what appears to be Eggers' lead. But The Pharmacist's Mate is a serious book, a quiet and reflective yin to Eggers' hyperly insecure yang. I liked it so much, I almost wished it had been published by someone else.
Take the press kit for The Pharmacist's Mate:
"There is almost no way to communicate how moving this book is. It is very moving.
"See? We did it no justice. We are serious. This book will be loved by those who read it."
Recently, a New York Times writer seemed to think this was meant to be taken as a joke, and her mention was dismissive because of it. It is hard to tell--perhaps Eggers actually means exactly what he says. What better means of parodying the ubiquitous American marketing machine than by being genuine? My feeling, however, is that no matter what Eggers means, Fusselman's prose will be remembered long after the McSweeney's machine eats itself and finally dies.
After many months of high-tech interventions, detailed in the book, Fusselman is finally pregnant--via the old-fashioned way. McSweeney's is definitely a boy's enterprise, and I liked the idea of a book by a pregnant woman becoming part of Eggers' canon. What does being pregnant feel like? "I wish there was a soundtrack to go with it," she said. "When I feel those little wiggles and squirms, there should be some sort of little music that goes on. You know the sound a tape makes when you rewind and keep the play on?
"It also feels a little like having someone sit on your lap for a few months."
Amy Fusselman is the real thing. Don't let the McSweeney's brand fool you.
NOTE: The Pharmacist's Mate will not be in bookstores until June 1, although you may purchase copies at the readings. Details can be found at Fusselman's website at surgeryofmodernwarfare.com, and McSweeneys.net.