Normal School is, first and foremost, worth the money. The money part is, like everything else about it, quirky; two issues a year, listed $5 newsstand, $20 a subscription, meaning there’s a $10 charge in there for saving you what I imagine to be (I don’t know—I have a subscription) the considerable pain in the ass of finding a newsstand with Normal School on it. And yet, as I said, it’s worth the money.
I subscribed to Normal School at AWP because a former roommate of mine works on it and I once wrote her a hot check for rent, truly believing that, as happened so often with my debit card, it would clear and I’d be charged $35 dumbass tax but at least I would have paid my rent. It didn’t work out that way. She was, understandably, upset. I also once exploded a bag of popcorn in her microwave and didn’t clean it up right away; for some reason I thought it already smelled that way. I don’t know why. These are the things you think about, along with loving things, with deep remorse in the years between being 20 and stupid and being 30 and slightly less stupid and running into her walking out of AWP as you’re walking in. She invited me to a party Normal School was throwing and I said I would go and it turned out I couldn’t and I felt so guilty that I didn’t text her and on the last day, I walked up and down the aisles three times and finally asked somebody where Normal School was so I could go buy a subscription I couldn’t really afford (the check, however, cleared) because I still felt bad about the microwave.
This, however, is not the main reason it’s worth the money.
Normal School has a hearty helping of the McSweeney’s empire’s style of deliberate whimsy but without the gravity, the sort of wry despair that makes so many of their antics feel like a dry, knowing laugh as the ship goes down. It’s quite possibly just me, but The Believer (also a subscription, but from a different kind of guilt) that makes me feel a. That I haven’t read enough and never could, and b. It’s all for shit anyway. Normal School feels like The Believer took their meds. I mean that as a compliment.
Normal School is… well, it’s worth quoting their own self-summary, since it communicates both style and context.
“The Normal School is a bi-annual journal featuring nonfiction, fiction, poetry, criticism and culinary adventure journalism. We are nestled happily into the California State University at Fresno like a comfy spore in a benign and mighty lung. We dig quirky, boundary-challenging, energetic prose and poetry with innovations in content, form, and focus, which isn't actually as high-falutin' as it sounds. We're just sort of the lit mag equivalent of the kid who always has bottle caps, cat's eye marbles, dead animal skulls, little blue men and other treasures in his pockets.”
Cool part is, they mean it. They’re magazine-style in physical format, well-designed, B&W on good paper with pull quotes and occasional, non-invasive ads for lit mags, books, and high-brow-hippie orgs like Amnesty International (full-color, full-page inside cover—nice work, Normal School!) and the Project on Government Oversight. Taking a cue from the New Yorker, each month they commission one artist to drop in a few cartoon-like illustrations here and there, not on the story with which they appear but on a theme. Last issue was Lori D. on the county fair; the one before, Jason Graham drew scenes from “what Show and Tell day would be like at The Normal School.” (I’m aware, by the way, that there’s a The in the title, but I like just Normal School better.) Covers are full-color with highlights designed to tantalize—“Susan Straight knows where you can stick your Dixie Cup and rubber balloon”)—and feature serious names like Maud Casey and Sherman Alexie. But all this is window dressing.
The reading is the thing. The design is impressive, fun but not so self-consciously quirky and whimsical that it’s distracting from or compensating for the content. The content is why it’s worth the money. This stuff is *fun.* It’s fun for my brain. First story, first issue I got of Normal School was “The Fifth Category” by Tom Bissell, which on the first page described the wine bottles on airplanes as “perfume-sized” and the windows as “lozenge-shaped,” which are the kinds of associations that feel so perfect that they seem obvious—maybe they are to you; after all, I haven’t read enough—but I’d not read or thought either before. There’s meaty poetry, not too long but diverse and abundant. And, interestingly, there’s a really satisfying quantity of prose (each issue is 112 pages) but that whole “genre” thing goes undesignated. Nowhere does Normal School tell you what’s “fiction” and what’s “nonfiction.” And since they genuinely welcome innovations in style (Brag Break: University of Arizona’s own Kirk Wisland published “Johnny Cash Died” in the most recent issue, a sizeable essay that is, I believe, a single sentence) you really, really can’t assume what’s what. I love this. As a second-year nonfic at UA, I’ve been sitting in on discussions of genre divisions and definitions for 16 months, and Normal School was the perfect place for me to practice all those different modes of thought about where we draw the lines when we write and how those lines change how we read.
In short, there are lit mags you subscribe to because you should read them, and then there are the ones you read. I read Normal School because it makes my brain happy, and when my brain is happy, I want to write.