A Delightful Rarity: A Literary Magazine That Refuses to Play It Safe
The Normal School’s Spring 2014 issue is a delightful rarity among lit journals. Each of the pieces resonates in key ways with the magazine as a whole while also maintaining its own distinct singularity—they work well together but never blend into each other. This sense of cohesiveness would make it almost tempting to deploy the term “well-curated,” except that those connotations feel out of place in the context of the issue’s playful mischievousness.
The Normal School gives a home to experimental, unconventional work that—refreshingly—doesn’t revel overlong in its own uniqueness. The writers clearly made their choices deliberately and thoughtfully, so there isn’t that feeling of quirks for quirkiness’ sake that this style is often accused of.
The diversity of voices and approaches make for a journal that is exciting, illuminating, and, most importantly, a great pleasure to read. Naturally, the pieces hit their marks with varying degrees of success, but the criteria for evaluation aren’t static from one selection to the next—and that’s a good thing.
As any English undergrad with a half-respectable rap sheet of Big Books and existential crises can and probably will tell you, a discerning reader must gauge any text on its own terms. A piece of writing teaches you how to read it while also establishing its own qualitative standards that it may meet or fall short of. That said, a good chunk of the literary endeavors in writing workshops and lesser lit mags tend to be imitative, formulaic, striving almost comically toward minimalism, and stuck in some version of the past airbrushed by nostalgia. By not striving for novel territory, these kinds of pieces also don’t challenge readers’ preconceptions about how writing ought to be evaluated.
By contrast, the only consistency among The Normal School’s selections is that they are universally sharp. Each story, poem, and essay sets its own terms and demands that readers recalibrate themselves to its world and conditions. Even when a piece doesn’t quite follow the trajectory it sets for itself, a keen writer made an effort at creating something particular to her vision, and that in itself makes it worthwhile and interesting.
A story like Dylan Landis’ “Rapture and the Fiercest Love,” for instance, introduces compelling threads but inexplicably refrains from following them in favor of more predictable and well-trodden territory. Yet the piece has enough great sentences and acute observations to compensate. Even from the second sentence I knew I wanted to see what Landis had to offer, even if it might not quite live up to its promise: “Revoltingly intimate, to see a teacher’s lunch, its homemade sandwich, its nicked pear.”
A final distinguishing factor is that these writers don’t shy away from what many seem to dismiss as “sub-literary” elements of today’s culture, most of which pertain to our increasingly tech-dependence. Instead, they make an effort to accommodate our unwieldy contemporary world, one in which the act of reading itself is feeling perpetually like a counter-cultural move. This makes for compelling reading, and it should be seen as an affirming landmark in the literary landscape.
The piece most likely to set up shop and bounce around in my head for the foreseeable future is “My Novel Is Brought to You by the Good People at Tampax” by Helen Ellis. It is a darkly hilarious story that takes on just about every nefarious aspect of creating art in a nightmarish late capitalist world. Tampax, which is sponsoring the narrator’s novel focusing on three generations of women, becomes steadily more sinister as her deadline approaches. Surveillance, marketing that takes precedence over art, and corporations wielding power over our lives all factor in. We laugh as the author devotes her time to Twitter accounts for all of her characters before she has even completed a draft of her manuscript, yet a tinge of anxiety figures in as well. It does, after all, feel like a distortion of only a degree or two from the world we already inhabit.
A story like this takes risks on both ends of the spectrum. It could come across as didactic, even treading into the realm of cautionary propaganda, or it could fall into the trap of being light and silly, devoid of underlying substance. Ellis navigates this territory expertly, crafting an absurd and humorous world whose issues resonate with anyone living today. The pathos in the author’s relationship with her husband and the prose itself serve to flesh the story out into an engaging, memorable work of art.
Some of the issue’s strongest nonfiction pieces also deal directly with how we encounter art and the role it plays in shaping our own narratives. Justin Hocking’s “The White Death,” an excerpt from his memoir The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, is a wonderful reflection on monomaniacal devotion to a work of literature—in this case, Moby-Dick. By its very impracticality, the fact that there are no justifications for it in the droll quantitative terms with which our choices are often assessed, there is something noble and almost transcendent about, in Hocking’s words, “the relentless pursuit of passions…[becoming] obsessed with a book about obsession.”
After sharing his own favored reading of the novel as “a metaphorical ‘night sea journey’ through despair and meaninglessness, symbolizing the dark passages that we all embark on during our development as individuals and as a society,” Hocking gives a brief overview of some of the most notable people who have been afflicted or blessed with The White Death, including Salman Rushdie, Jackson Pollock, and Sena Jeter Naslund, author of the novel Ahab’s Wife.
“The Fall of Man,” Judith Cooper’s story, which appears just pages after “The White Death,” concludes with the line “Call me Ishmael.” While it’s debatable whether the story, whose rather lackluster plot does a disservice to its spot-on language, warrants the comparison it invokes, it is the sort of fortuitous echo that occurs throughout the issue, one that the editors couldn’t have planned but that they arrange to maximum effect.
In his essay “Documentary Splendors and Errors,” Phillip Lopate says of certain documentaries in the 2013 festival circuit that they “were a fascinating mix of the purposeful and the inadvertent.” The same could be said of the way that the pieces in this issue interact and engage with one another. Lopate’s essay is largely an examination of the way that some of the most interesting documentaries are the ones in which the viewer may draw conclusions that are different from or even in opposition to those that the filmmaker intended. It is a provocative piece that speaks to “our open-ended curiosity about life…[over] any need for sensationalism and closure.”
Perhaps my greatest disappointment in the issue was a piece whose experimental form didn’t serve the important, complex subject matter. Silas Hansen’s “An Annotated Guide to my OK Cupid Profile” is, at its best, a meditation on the perplexities of the dating world as a young transgender man. The issue as a whole features some strong queer voices, an important and underrepresented faction of the literary community, and this piece had the potential to be among the most captivating.
Unfortunately, the structure, which consists essentially of elaborations on the drastically oversimplified avenues for expression of identity on a dating site, ends up ironically constricting the piece’s own scope as well. While it sounds like a clever idea, the places the essay takes us warrant a format that allows it to be more fully fleshed-out, even if that may mean more conventional structurally. The limitations are evident as early as the second page of the piece, in which Hansen describes a pivotal point in his life, but it figures clumsily into the annotated format, since it refers to a picture that does not in fact appear anywhere on his profile.
It’s telling that after all of this I still see my own omissions as almost unforgiveable, since each piece deserves thorough reading and consideration. Because not a single one takes the safe route, each one is worth the time it asks. The Normal School is in accord with Tony Kushner, a member of The White Dead, who Hocking quotes as saying, “it’s better to risk total catastrophe than to play it safe as an artist.”