magazine is a kaleidoscopic new British literary review, still in its infancy and edited by a bunch of precocious Cambridge graduate students. Not since
or the original
has there been such an original and absorbing new lit mag. Reading it is like letting your mind play; a totally pleasurable intellectual experience without the hip, stylish, babyish annoyances of the average new publication. As does Granta on occasion, Topic takes a subject (“War” in its first issue, “Fantasy” in its second) and gets two dozen or so writers and thinkers–sometimes just individuals with stories to tell–to come up with a turn on it. Some of the pieces are silly, but even those have something to offer–some amusing tidbit, an interesting attitude, a big literary voice, a deeply weird idiosyncrasy to reveal. Best of all, the pieces are bite-size and palatable. Topic is like a chocolate sampler for the mind.
Here’s a run-through of the CVs of some contributors to the Fantasy issue: A poet, an anorexic writer, a classics professor, a graphic designer, a British knight, an English Civil War recreator, a professor of cognitive science, a Dutch photographer, a computer programmer; plus David Leavitt (the novelist), Steve McCurry (the photographer), a Ukrainian male prostitute and an American submarine-builder/restaurateur.
The least self-conscious and possibly best piece in the issue–although there is material that is much more serious–is the one from David Gibbons, the English Civil War re-enactor. Gibbons is a man who, on his own admission, “spends much of my spare time clad in archaic costume, speaking in the English of three hundred and fifty years ago and pretending, along with several thousand like minded characters, to be a soldier in the English Civil War.” He works at the Torrington 1646 Civil War Heritage Centre in Devon, and plays “Robert de Gilbert, turncoat musketeer late of Lord Hopton’s Western Army and now under the command of Lord Fairfax.” The piece is written with a sense both of decency and of the ridiculous, and yet has an utter delight in absurdity and lack of real embarrassment that makes one think of John Cleese’s best performances and characters. What a job this would be for Basil Fawlty.
Gerda Reith on “Gambling’s Dark Secret” provides a brief journey into the world of compulsive gamblers (it’s not reporting really, but an essay, as are many of these pieces), and she reminds one of Gogol’s famous quote: All men are equal at cards. Marc Herman offers a “Letter from Java,” a wonderful piece about the worlds of difference between cultures on the two sides of the Pacific. Of the financial deal he strikes with his Indonesian “guide” (whom he agrees to pay $10 a day), Herman writes: “He had no idea how little I was paying him; I had no idea how lavishly I was paying him. We walked off toward the Sultan’s Palace in usefully mutual ignorance.” Steve McCurry’s photos of the Subcontinent and of the Middle East are very beautiful and respectably reproduced. There is so much more that is valuable, fun and a pleasure to read at a gulp here: a submarine searching for the Loch Ness monster (it goes nose down in the deep); Leavitt’s essay on coincidence; “Vladislav’s” memoir on being a male hooker in Prague; Jamie Campbell’s narrative about pretending to be the writer Alex Garland; Julian Dibbell’s amazing, trippy rumination on the former slave who first explored and mapped Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, and on how those maps and caves were translated into one of the first computer fantasy games. Topic is edgy without self-consciousness, meta without dopey complications. No magazine I’ve read in the past year has been anywhere near as consistently intelligent or fresh.
Shout It Out
Another fairly new publication, this one American and a relaunch, is
, whose motto is “insurgent thought + culture”–lots of hubris there. What’s good about Shout is its mix of art-world reporting/criticism and, on the other hand, politics. One recent issue featured the ubiquitous Cory Booker on the cover with the headline “the first black president of the united states?” You might have thought we’d had enough of Booker, who, after all, lost his bid to become the new mayor of…Newark, a city of only 300,000, whose mayor is already black. Yet the piece, by Mat Johnson, has its merits. Johnson likes Booker but understands the Booker image-making machine. He cleverly points out that Booker, the shaven-headed Golden Boy of the article’s title, resembles nothing as much as the Oscar statuette, and the whole piece is really about how Booker is a prized object of his own creating. And yet, and yet… “How many politicians do you know,” asks Johnson, “who would be willing to move into the projects to prove a point during their campaign, and then stay there after they lose? Why would a fledgling politician pick the political beast that is Newark, New Jersey, if all he wanted was an easy, self-aggrandizing fight?” Good questions to be asked about Booker, a guy who does not seem to be taking the voters’ no for an answer.
The same issue of Shout has a short piece on an artist who makes X-ray videos of people having sex, and a much too long piece (but with interesting photos) on the meaning of the Mohawk haircut over the years (“From ‘Mo’ to ‘Faux': An Elegy to a Once Fierce ‘Do,” it is called). There is also a nice compendium of reasons to hate President Bush (“A Cheat Sheet for Why This Man is a Terrible President”).
Unfortunately, the level of political discourse throughout much of the magazine is a bit juvenile. In the lead edit in the Booker issue, paraphrasing the actress Julia Roberts (who said “I cannot absorb living in a world where I have an Oscar for best actress and Denzel [Washington] doesn’t have one for best actor”), Shout‘s editor asks, “Why can we absorb living in a world where George Bush is president and Carl McCall isn’t governor?” The level of bad logic, dumb politics and silly ideas that went into the writing of that sentence is so vast as to defy the imagination. One might just as well say, tout court, that one cannot absorb living in a world where Julia Roberts has an Oscar and George Bush is President.