Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Sunday's epic battle: McSweeney's vs. They Might Be Giants at Stanford's Memorial Auditorium.

The show is basically an in-the-flesh version of McSweeney's #6, which comes complete with a CD soundtrack from TMBG, each track assigned to a selection in the magazine by an elaborate chart in the front. Apparently McSweeney's diabolical mastermind Dave Eggers approached TMBG and asked them to set the magazine to music, which challenge they promptly accepted.

I've been a TMBG fan since "Ana Ng" was in heavy rotation at my high school's low-power radio station, and it was mostly their presence that made me shell out for the hefty McSweeney's issue and the Stanford show. But it was my first major foray into the Eggers empire, which I've tacked around (I have that heartbreaking work of swaggering genius around somewhere) with some mixture of bemusement and jealous awe.

MemAud, which I'm guessing holds on the order of a thousand people, was packed with a funny mixture of the usual respectable Palo Alto community members who attend Lively Arts events and T-shirt-and-short-clad students and TMBG fans. The stage was set up for something between a rock concert and a jazz set; our seats were in the front row, about 15 feet from a massive wall of speakers.

The first half was something like a variety show, with readings and patter interspersed with music. John Flansburgh (the big, gregarious Giant) served as corny MC ("Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. DAVE EGGERS!"), while John Linnell (the skinny, quiet, accordion-playing one) sat on a stool and smiled cherubically. Readers included funny-voiced commentator Sarah Vowell (musings on American history and Salem, along with a song whose chorus went "Gallows Hill and Andersonville / It could be worse / It could be worse"), Don Novello (aka SNL's Father Guido Sarducci, reading weird letters he's written to NASA and Saddam Hussein), novelist Zadie Smith, and of course Eggers himself.

Smith was by far the best reader (the British accent doesn't hurt). Eggers had asked her to write a piece called "The Girl with Bangs," which she said she first thought meant "the girl with controlled explosions" (the British term is "fringe"). The story's equal parts funny, nasty, and sweet, with odd recurring imagery (the girl in question being compared several times to a bundle rescued from a fire), and a couple of times the band chimed in with accompaniment (though Smith, to her credit, just read on blithely).

Then there was the man himself. I haven't made it all the way through any of Eggers's books (I'm working on his new one), but I get the increasing suspicion that he's more clever than deeply interesting. (I seem to recall reading a reviewer noting that while his work had all these formal bells and whistles on the surface, his narratives and characters were utterly conventional--that seems right to me.) His performance confirmed that; indeed, the story he read seemed to me to perfectly capture his sensibility, being told as it was from the perspective of a libidinous thirteen-year-old boy. The piece was self-conscious and clever and pop-culture-savvy (probably the best part was when the protagonist--for whatever reason, it's written in the second person--describes listening to a Smiths song over and over on his Walkman, and the band then chimed in to illustrate, with Flansburgh doing an absolutely dreadful Morrissey imitation), but its basic plot elements were voyeurism and (I'm not kidding) pooping your pants and the frequent punch line "you hope she'll touch your crotch" read in an increasingly sneering tone. The clever surface can't hide the fact that the sentiment is ridiculously crude--Eggers made Father Guido look like a model of sophistication.

And yet I can't help but admire Eggers's obvious abilities as an impresario. I mean, he got a great rock band to back up and a thousand people to turn out for what was essentially a litmag reading. McSweeney's has become a phenomenon as much for its weirdo, whiz-bang, retro but obviously expensive aesthetic and packaging as for its content, and Eggers has emerged as a poster boy for small-press publishing and independent bookstores (witness the gesture of only selling his new novel in independents). In this sense, McSweeney's has positioned itself in the literary marketplace for fiction in much the same way Fence has for poetry--as the outward-oriented, accommodating, PR-savvy face of experimental writing, eager for a wide audience and flagship status. And they've succeeded quite remarkably at this. I'm not sure whether I should be sad or glad that McSweeney's contains almost no poetry.

The second half of the show was, thankfully, all concert. I've probably seen TMBG upwards of ten times over the years, and I always have a blast at their shows. I got to thinking about whether TMBG's aesthetic was a fit with McSweeney's. Both have a taste for the quirky (or, in Moe Szyslak's immortal definition of postmodernism, "weird for the sake of weird"), though TMBG tends more towards the 1950s kitschy vs. McSweeney's 18th-century-style excess and wistful nostalgia. You might say TMBG is childish and amateurish, in the best sense of both those words; they've never been particularly stellar musicians (and are pretty bad singers) but they're always so obviously having fun up there, infectiously so, and their songs are about cartoon characters and science class. McSweeney's--at least in its Eggers face--is more, well, adolescent, flexing in the mirror, its ambitions and desires growing faster than its muscles.

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