Some degree of courage is in order if you wish to fully admit your life. You have to take a draught of ego poison to accept the full dimensions of your banality, your sheer corniness and ordinariness, the monstrous silliness of private ambitions and sexual fantasies, your loutish peacockery, your spates of sloth, all of which is to say that you were specifically not destined for the spiritual big time.
— Jim Harrison, "Private Religion"
TOM BISSELL IS A MASTER of the confessional, and in his new essay collection, Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, he has taken Harrison's advice to heart. I first became aware of Bissell's work with "Video games: the addiction," an essay about the three years he spent addicted to cocaine and obsessively playing Grand Theft Auto IV. Here, Bissell's rhapsodic prose is harnessed in the service of revealing the most horrible details of this period in his life.
Soon I was sleeping in my clothes. Soon my hair was stiff and fragrantly unclean. Soon I was doing lines before my Estonian class, staying up for days, curating prodigious nose bleeds and spontaneously vomiting from exhaustion ... retreating home, to my Xbox, to GTA IV, to the electrifying solitude of my mind at play in an anarchic digital world.
(You cannot curate a nosebleed, I don't think — not even in the 14th century, according to the OED — but anyhoo. He is kind of a poetically-licentious writer.)
Bissell shares the habit of self-deprecation, self-flagellation even, with any number of modern literary lions, including Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and the late David Foster Wallace. I am selfish, these writers say; I behaved badly here; I was addicted to drugs, to video games. I wanted this girl to like me, so I did thus and such ridiculous thing. I was so stupid, so wrong. This routine has taken a strong hold among our literati.
Wallace, ever the superstar, yields to nobody in his mastery of this skill. Here he is, losing his muffin at a state fair (from A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again):
We're about 100 yards shy of the Poultry building when I break down. I've been a rock about the prospect of Open Poultry Judging all day, but now my nerve totally goes. I can't go in there. Listen to the untold thousands of sharp squawking beaks in there, I say ... It's 93 degrees and I have pygmy-goat shit on my shoe and am almost weeping with fear and embarrassment.
Jonathan Franzen, in The Guardian, describes the trouble he had wrassling down his novel, The Corrections:
Much of my shame became concentrated in the character of Chip Lambert. I worked for a full year to get his story going, an...