"To travel hopefully," wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, "is a better thing than to arrive." Maybe, but in the inaugural edition of "Freeman's," a collection of brand-new fiction, nonfiction and poetry edited by literary critic and former Granta editor John Freeman, the focus is on the euphoria, or the anticlimax, of arriving somewhere — either reaching a destination or achieving a goal.
"Freeman's" feels like a cross between a journal and an anthology. It will be published twice a year, each time revolving around a different theme and showcasing the talent of a broad range of writers, from old hands to new voices. If this first installment is anything to go by, it has all the hallmarks of a promising new project.
The collection opens with six titleless "shorts," each one a brief, anecdotal and autobiographical sketch comprising a couple of pages. Two describe homecomings: Louise Erdrich returns to Turtle Island and wanders around a cemetery where graveside lanterns light the way for the dead on their final journey; Colum McCann revisits Dublin only to find himself disorientated by rearranged streets.
David Mitchell recalls a ghostly presence in his house in Hiroshima Prefecture. More arresting, however, is his image of hordes of "irradiated human beings" staggering from the atomic bomb blast 50 years earlier and passing through what is now his yard.
The three longest pieces are among the most interesting. In Haruki Murakami's "Drive My Car," an actor (and typical Murakami protagonist — male, solitary, estranged, music lover) hires a female chauffeur whose lulling conversation and smooth driving cause him to drift back into his past and remember an unlikely friendship with his wife's lover. In her first ever published story, Fatin Abbas depicts the trials faced by a humanitarian organization in a war-hit village in her native Sudan. Closing the collection is a fascinating essay by Lydia Davis that recounts how she taught herself to read, and enjoy, a formidably dense family saga in Norwegian — without a dictionary or any grasp of the language.
There are two fine comic turns here: Etgar Keret's hilarious account of his first paid book reading — while stoned; and English novelist Helen Simpson's wry tale of two London ladies and their "illuminated ramblings" about menopause during an acupuncture session. "I envisage the new state as being like Arizona," one says. "Brilliantly lit and level and filled with dependable sunshine."
Only Dave Eggers' story, "The Fork," fizzles out before it gets going. In contrast, Aleksandar Hemon's tender and insightful essay on his Bosnian immigrant parents' displacement and long-term acclimatization process in Canada is so absorbing that we are sorry when it is over.
In his introduction, Freeman argues that "stories and essays, even the right kind of poem, will take us somewhere else, put us down somewhere new." The majority of the writing in this admirable collection does precisely that. Prepare to be transported.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.