Books

Various
Freeman’s, Issue 1

When considering the first volume of a new literary journal, it’s always reasonable to wonder if we really need another. The readership for the literary journal has always been small, though Text – a local house that already publishes a journal of its own – clearly believes there’s a market for a new title in the United States. 

In Australia, where the audience for all kinds of literature is small, we certainly have more than enough journals. They are always dying – from the 2000s, vale Heat, Wet Ink, Harvest, Torpedo, Etchings and Extempore – but like a dogged form of fungus, more are always springing forth. The results of this environment, as Robyn Annear noted in The Monthly two years ago, have an “essential unevenness”, an enjoyably oddball quality that Freeman’s hardly shares at all. It lacks the artful breadth of post-2008 Meanjin, the scrawly energy of Voiceworks, the omnivorousness of Kill Your Darlings, Overland’s radical heart, the fizzy brains of The Lifted Brow or the sheer bite of Scum Mag, not to mention any of the features that distinguish a dozen other journals – the specific sensibilities that mark a thriving local scene.

Freeman’s is for people who don’t read journals like that – where it’s less important to be consistent than interesting. The first issue is themed “Arrival”, but you can read it as “Return”: it’s what the literary journal felt like before McSweeney’s debuted in 1998 and lent a boundary-nudging spirit to the entire form. C format, softcover, about 300 pages, black and white. A brief essay from the editor introducing a loose but lofty theme.

While it’s not the most daring format, it’s a comfortable one that journals have been doing good things with for decades. The editor, John Freeman, is the former president of the US’s National Book Critics Circle, and was editor of Britain’s Granta until 2013. In other words, he comes packing the mother of all Rolodexes, and you can see why any publisher would bankroll this book. 

Among work by Louise Erdrich, David Mitchell, Fady Joudah, Colum McCann, Honor Moore, Aleksandar Hemon, Anne Carson and Ghassan Zaqtan, there are certainly a few pieces that feel a bit… if not tossed off, then off the cuff. But you don’t open a literary journal expecting to like everything, and the better of these stories are very, very good. 

There’s Etgar Keret’s memoir about his first public reading, which he undertook after imbibing the kind of weed “that bubbles in your brain but also drops into your muscles” (he ends up calmly slicing and eating a whole cake on stage). There’s a chunky story by Haruki Murakami, whose characters are in full noir-tinged midlife-crisis-exploring form. 

Barry Lopez introduces a series of colour photographs by Ben Huff, whose camera scans the bleakness of Alaska’s Dalton Highway and comes back with something complicated, bleak and rough. Dave Eggers chimes in with a bright, funny, woozy short. And Laura van den Berg’s incredible story “The Dog” has a snappy, fast-paced surface and a dark, glittering core. I gaped for a long time at the last two paragraphs, a shattering portrait of a person coming face to face with her own future and past.

In any other journal, the showstopper would be Lydia Davis’s “On Learning Norwegian”. Davis is best known for her almost aphoristic works; one runs in its entirety, “Like a tropical storm, I, too, may one day become ‘better organized.’ ” 

But “On Learning Norwegian” runs to nearly 60 pages. It is literally an account of the author teaching herself Norwegian, by way of puzzling through, day by day, a long, experimental novel. Under plain-sounding subtitles such as “my method of figuring out the words: breaking the word into its component parts”, you follow Davis as she makes minor breakthroughs, faces setbacks, or simply has tangential thoughts. The essay is more-or-less unquotable; line-by-line, it sounds dull. In fact, though, it works hard to hypnotise the reader into a state that matches its own personal, scholarly rhythms. In the end, the essay conveys slow, difficult labour, the kind that’s only as rewarding as it is frustrating and hard.

It’s the last piece in the journal, and that’s the right spot. But for my money, the best essay here is “Black and Blue” by Garnette Cadogan, a scholar, editor and freelancer who’s yet to publish a book. 

When Cadogan moves from Jamaica to New Orleans and then on to New York, he realises that walking – “moonlight pedestrianism” – means one thing if you’re a white person and another if you’re not. He writes: “When we first learn to walk, the world around us threatens to crash into us. Every step is risky. We train ourselves to walk without crashing by being attentive to our movements, and extra-attentive to the world around us. As adults we walk without thinking, really. But as a black adult I am often returned to that moment in childhood when I’m just learning to walk.”

The cleanliness, openness and expressiveness of the prose sometimes disguises, and sometimes emphasises, a sharp pain in the gut, and the result is an unusual concoction that feels either searching or gripping from paragraph to paragraph. Equally likely to name-check Vivian Gornick as James Baldwin, this essay deserves as much exposure as anything published on black life in America this year. More than anything else here, it gave me the sensation I look to journals for: not a bundle of solid writing from heavy-hitting authors, but the feeling of pulse-pounding discovery; someone new to obsess over. Just think: without Freeman’s I might never have found him at all.

Freeman’s is working in a weird, wild, many-tendrilled form. With printing getting cheaper, and online formats growing strong, there’s more room than ever for journals of all sorts. These same forces mean a sturdy journal with a throwback vibe feels not just comfortable, but comforting; fond, familiar and warm. In his introduction, Freeman posits that “Any true reader always wants more – more life, more experiences, more risk than one’s own life can contain.” Who could look at all those journals and not want more, more, more?  CR

Text, 304pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2015 as "Various, Freeman’s, Issue 1". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CR