APRIL 18, 2012
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, and at the end of that year I had about 30 usable pages. In the last days of my marriage, I’d had a brief relationship with a young woman I’d met when I was teaching … it was a very awkward and unsatisfactory relationship, a relationship I now literally writhed with shame to think about, and for some reason it seemed absolutely necessary to draw on it in telling Chip’s story. And the problem was that every time I tried to put Chip into a situation like mine, he became horribly repellent to me … Every time I held my breath for a few days and produced a new batch of Chip pages, I ended up with stuff so icky it made me want to take a shower.
(Leave it to Franzen! “A young woman,” indeed. One is forced to imagine all sorts of unwelcome alternatives: “An old woman.” “A young manatee.” “An antelope of indeterminate age.”)
John Jeremiah Sullivan is another terrific self-abnegator, as in this widely praised Disney World piece from The New York Times Magazine:
When Trevor and I became tight — as neighbors, in our early 20s — I was smoking a bit [of weed] myself, almost competing with him. But when I hit 30, I backed up off it, as the song says. I never stopped liking the stuff or feeling that it benefited me, for that matter, but the habit was starting to make me dumb, and I was just humble enough by 30, I guess, to realize I hadn’t been born with enough cerebral ammunition to go voluntarily squandering any of it. Meanwhile Trevor stayed committed. And when we get together, a couple of times a year, I won’t lie, I fall prey to old patterns.
Why do readers respond to this sort of “look, I’m not gonna lie to you” stuff so much? For one thing, we may suppose that admitting a weakness is indicative of a larger willingness to tell the truth; it lends a gloss of authenticity. But obviously the quick and easy path, for anybody, writing or not, is to stay off the unpleasant topics altogether. “Please like me,” one might be thinking, and so perhaps decide to leave out the peccadilloes, the weed and the nosebleeds.
Another reason for open self-condemnation is that it forestalls the reader’s potential criticism, as if to say, “Okay, I already know I was being a jerk, so let’s just move on.” Also, it gives the writer a certain license to bag on other people; if he is so terribly hard on himself, then everyone else is fair game. This is stand-up-comic territory, which in dire cases results in a kind of blanket I’m-a-schmuck misanthropy.
But by far the best justification — really, an impeccable one — for the confessional style is this: When Tom Bissell suggests that he is a little messed up because he was addicted to cocaine for three years, the reader can judge Bissell’s subsequent arguments more fairly, and more accurately. I know (and he knows that I know) that he was addicted to cocaine, and that’s why he sounds simultaneously wistful and bitter about cocaine. Because of the absolute legitimacy of this rationale, I never really mind the knee-jerk self-deprecation. It’s almost like the price of admission, swiping your key card to get into the office, let’s get this over with, it’s the 21st century, we are human, flawed, and we understand one another. In “Writing about Writing about Writing,” he writes,
To indulge, briefly, in further autobiography, my first published book has just appeared in stores. The last year of my life — the year of finishing it, editing it, and seeing it through its various page-proof passes — ranks among the most unnerving of my young life. It has not felt good, or freeing. It has felt nerve-shreddingly disquieting.
The charm of self-deprecation absolutely works on me as a reader, but I also can’t help thinking that it is sometimes a bit of a parlor trick, particularly in view of the fact that these writers have, over time, established a certain pattern of expectation for us. Now that we have come to expect our essayists to approach us warts and all, self-deprecation has become something of a cliché: something that is in danger of seeming like fakery. I am not accusing Tom Bissell or any of the writers I’ve mentioned of employing this technique cynically. But when it becomes necessary to cop to a few warts in order to be liked or trusted? What then?
Bissell’s Magic Hours shares with Sullivan’s Pulphead and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again not only the familiarly self-critical tone, but also a pleasing variety of subjects: fancy literature; his father and the legacy of Vietnam; Werner Herzog; the destruction of the Aral Sea; the meaning of sitcoms. The author casts his net wide.
But in this case, the self-deprecation comes with a catch, which appears even before the book gets underway. In his prefatory remarks, Bissell says he used to regard “fiction — novels, especially — as the supreme achievement of the human imagination.” Nowadays he no longer believes in “genre chauvinism,” he says. This broadening and deepening of the author’s taste can indeed be traced through the peripatetic paths of Magic Hours, which is arranged chronologically, from 2000 to 2011. Bissell may be profoundly self-critical, but his literary tastes and opinions are stubbornly lofty all the same. Although he says he’s given it up — a literary hierarchy with “great writing,” if not fiction, at the top — a slightly pompous sense of “the supreme achievement of the human imagination” (as if there could be such a thing, and if there could, that it could be named) is threaded throughout these essays, creating a supercilious tone that sorts uneasily with the abashed one.
Ordinarily I would dislike that a lot, but Bissell won me over anyway. I came away from Magic Hours with a half-admiring, half-exasperated feeling, the feeling of having a very smart friend who is also stuffed to the gills with views with which you cannot in the slightest agree. He says things like, “[Emily] Dickinson’s invincibly sedentary love of home is, from our modern standpoint, rather pathetic,” and also, “In Main Street and Babbitt, [Sinclair] Lewis horse-whipped America’s small towns so ferociously the latter has become synonymous with everything strangling and conformist about them.” He expounds elsewhere on literature in general, arguing that it “should be elitist, though creatively elitist rather than politically or socially elitist.” What the hell?
But he also writes,
By all available evidence, the public wants one novel after another starring Goodhearted Lawyers Fighting the System, Goodhearted Christians Battling the Antichrist, and Goodhearted Heroines Humped Silly by Manly Strangers Who Will Ultimately Leave Them but Damn, That Was Some Orgasm, Was It Not?
Basically I love this guy, and he also drives me up a tree.
The best thing about Tom Bissell: He is fun. I think of him as “a wild and crazy guy.” I’m by turns entertained and completely aghast at his antics. He is totally obsessive. He’s watched that appalling movie The Room a bajillion times. I loved the idea of him and David Foster Wallace negotiating gravely about whether or not they ought to dip tobacco together (they did). Bissell, apparently, travels all over the place with a hardcover copy of Infinite Jest, which is surely the most inconvenient thing outside of, like, a chihuahua, to have to pack in a suitcase. And I don’t know if he’s given it up by now (I hope so) but he used to drink 10 Diet Cokes every day. Ten! That is terrible, Tom Bissell! I worry about him.
Magic Hours demonstrates clearly the bind of being a modern essayist: One must present oneself as an authority, but an authority who is also compelled to confess that to be human is necessarily to be weak, frightened, flawed. The position is somewhat irreconcilable, and the discomfort thereby engendered also speaks to something very deep, I suspect, in the kind of North American reader liable to have picked up the book in the first place. It’s a very familiar discomfort. Fans of this kind of writing might share the consciousness, with Bissell and his cohort, of being too lucky, too rich, too educated — privileged, powerful, but flawed, even undeserving. This disconnect winds up making the book really very good, which is to say, entirely true to the experience of its likely readership.
For those who, like me, are generally opposed to canonical notions of literature, there will be much to quarrel with in Magic Hours. But there is also a lot here to enjoy and admire, which contrast makes for a highly gratifying literary experience: half of it spent reading the collection, and the other half divided equally between noting “v. true” in the margins and hurling the paperback across the room in a rage. Hours and hours of fun! Not even kidding:
“… the yield of an inert aggregate of chance.”
Here is my favorite bon mot (maybe, there are a ton of good ones) from Magic Hours, from the essay about the Underground Literary Alliance, a bunch of noisy, not-too-talented zinesters who tried to form a literary movement:
Hermitt’s problem is that she, like Jackman, has mistaken emotion and purity of intent for art. Wenclas has defended Hermitt’s work by saying, “There can be no rewrites … Attempts to impose order — grammar, spelling, and logic — would cause the fragile bursts of immediacy to fall apart.” To that one is tempted to argue that poiaurna fopiuay bnvmnnab.
( !! v. true )
The shade of David Foster Wallace looms large over the whole of Magic Hours. Bissell has never been shy about acknowledging his debt to Wallace. On the McSweeney’s tribute page assembled after Wallace’s death, he wrote: “It is hard to be friends with someone you admire as much as I admired Dave, and it speaks to his grace and kindness that, knowing full well what I owed him as a writer, he let me into his life at all.”
“Great and Terrible Truths” is a tiny little 2009 essay about Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College that was later published as This is Water. Bissell seems to think that Wallace’s famous speech found such a huge audience “thanks to the enterprising soul who transcribed it from video and posted it on the Internet,” a really eye-crossing assertion, since by 2006 there were dozens if not hundreds of complete transcripts of commencement addresses on the Internet from every kind of notable figure — Steve Jobs, Stephen Colbert, Bono, Jon Stewart, Tony Kushner, et al. — though none of those tore around the Internet to the extent that Wallace’s did. “[S]omehow,” Bissell writes, “it came to the attention of my family friend — a woman who would not have known David Foster Wallace if he fell on her. Thanks to the enthusiasm of people like her, and the magic of the cut-and-paste function, the address became a small sensation.” This is Bissell in snob mode, assuming that there are People Who Know Wallace, or somehow deserve to, and Those Who Don’t. He knew this band before it was cool. The passage displays the main weakness in the essays, which is connected with the canonical, and also with snobbery re: Rubes.
In “Escanaba’s Magic Hour,” the author revisits his hometown to report on the filming of a Hollywood movie there. It’s got a lot of sneering about small-town life, this essay. A species of cultural cringing. But Bissell reveals that he had mistakenly snubbed one of the town’s residents, and realizes they aren’t all as dazzled by the glamour as he’d first supposed: “I now feel like a jackass, and compound this by eavesdropping on the woman’s subsequent interview.”
There are many instances in which Bissell expresses ambivalence about his rural origins: In “Writing about Writing about Writing,” he describes the crisis of self-confidence he had at age 18, in a writing workshop at Bennington. “I did not have talent, was galactically outclassed by the Harvard students on their resume-building summer vacations, and suddenly had no idea why I ever believed my deeply rural imagination would ever be capable of producing literary art.”
(Hello? Wm. Faulkner??)
Wallace and Franzen are Midwesterners, and Sullivan, too, was raised in the country (in the South). Bissell writes,
Small-town people live in dread of any substantiation of how out of it they secretly suspect themselves to be. This is why many small-town men dress so hideously, and why many small-town women do such upsetting things to their hair. One never risks rejection when one has made that rejection inevitable.
I just can’t believe that for an instant. There is a different style of life everywhere you go, and if you lived there, you would pick it up, eventually, just by osmosis. The styles of different places clash, but surely no one with any sense would attach much importance to that. The main thing that is apparent about this Midwestern cultural cringe is that it has produced a lot of very skilled writers who are afflicted with a weird self-loathing. “These upper Midwestern Jukes and Kallikaks,” Bissell writes,
live in a culture which despises them, consume entertainment produced by people who mock them, and it is suddenly hard to fault their powerless laughter at a film in which they will find no representation, not even as tough-talking rednecks deodorized by horse-sense philosophy.
To a native Californian, this sounds patently insane. There’s this long-publicized idea that the edges have contempt for the middle in America, when everyone’s favorite movie is Fargo, and the nation stampedes en masse on practically an annual basis to see Brad Pitt (who is one) portray a Midwesterner. The real story, far more important than the alleged contempt for the inhabitants of “flyover states” (a ridiculous moniker I strongly suspect to have been coined by a refugee from one) is that Midwesterners are the salt of the earth; they are noble and wise, neither materialistic nor neurotic nor hypochondriacal nor afflicted with any of the other bad qualities that plague us alienated, miserable, inferior urbanites. The “gentle, yet confident, Midwestern social ethos,” as The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia describes it, is a true, resilient thing. Else why would we so admire these self-critical rural writers so passionately?
“… dimples that colonize her face when she smiles.”
( %(**& )
Bissell is at his best when discussing anything to do with movies, which he does in several essays in Magic Hours. In “Rules of Engagement,” one of his finest and most characteristic, he discusses Peter Davis’s Vietnam War documentary:
Why did we go to Vietnam? What did we do there? What did the doing in turn do to us? “I didn’t expect the film to answer these questions,” Davis admits … “I expected it to address those questions.” Explanatory impotence is not unique to the documentary but in some ways is abetted by the form. Inimitably vivid yet brutally compressed, documentaries often treasure image over information, proffer complications instead of conclusions, and touch on rather than explore.
It’s a sharp and compact analysis of war documentaries that also has a great deal to say about the writerly values underpinning Bissell’s own work.
“Most writers are not garrulous people.”
(Whoof! *Thud* )
“He wears sunglasses regardless of available daylight and a tight white ball cap one suspects is in place to keep his skull from detonating.”
( !!! )
The book ends, gratifyingly, on a note of admiration for the “rural imagination” — the author’s beautifully rendered visit to the writer Jim Harrison, who has for decades been a close friend of Bissell’s father. “The Theory and Practice of Not Giving a Shit” neatly encapsulates the progress of Bissell’s consciousness as a writer. Earlier in the book, Bissell tells us, “Literature is sacred. It is as sacred to me as anything I know.” Talking of Harrison, whom he frankly worships, his breathless fanboy tone mingles agreeably with that of the meticulously observant reporter.
His dogs came running up: Mary, an elderly black English setter; and Zil, a squat-legged Scottish retriever with a stick clamped between her teeth. “Don’t throw her stick,” Harrison told me. “Under any circumstances. It will never end.” Harrison looked at Zil — wet and filthy from a recent dip in the Harrisons’ pond — and shook his head. “She’s such a fuckhead,” he said. “But she’s a free woman. I adore her.”
Because of their very intimacy it appears that Bissell’s relationship with Harrison is more than a little uneasy. Having known someone so eminent since he was a child, having gone into the same profession, having felt complicatedly tender towards his father’s intimates, Bissell communicates all his shyness, hesitation, and general flipping-out with simplicity and candor. Clearly his writing has only gotten better and better, and this final essay, brimming with self-deprecation and dogs and love, is just so, so good.
In his GQ review of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King, John Jeremiah Sullivan talks at length about the terrible conflicts in Wallace’s character.
He himself was unfinished, unresolved. There’s a great Stevie Smith poem called “Was He Married?” It’s her argument that normal human beings are more heroic than gods. Their difficulties are much greater, she says, “because they are so mixed.” Wallace was so mixed. He was ambivalent and conflicted, about, among other things, the difference between the kinds of writing in this novel. He wasn’t sure which he preferred, or how they might go together. And what if the one he wound up valuing most wasn’t the one he was best at, by nature?
This description doesn’t fit just Wallace. I suspect there are traces of Sullivan himself here, and of Tom Bissell, and of probably all writers, and maybe of a lot more of us than that. There’s no escape from the confessional, simply because there’s no end to our imperfections.