Discoveries: Tom Bissell, April Bernard, James Franco, John Green, Sarah Manguso

By Susan Salter ReynoldsMay 6, 2012

Discoveries: Tom Bissell, April Bernard, James Franco, John Green, Sarah Manguso

Tom Bissell

Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation

Magic Hour: The brief periods of dawn and dusk that allow enough time for shooting, but also create some striking effects on film.

– The Complete Film Dictionary

This little epigram sits atop Tom Bissell's second essay in this collection, "Escanaba's Magic Hour: Movies, Robot Deer, and the American Small Town." A very funny essay about a film crew that comes to Bissell's hometown to shoot a movie starring Jeff Daniels, the piece reveals a great deal about the way Bissell thinks about things and how he came to do so. In the essay, the author stands forward as a small-town boy who's proud of his origins and proud of it. He surprises himself with his own loyalty, and reveals the insider/outsider stance that makes his observations unique, charming, and meaningful.

Many of these essays, written from Bissell's twenty-fifth year (when he worked as an assistant editor) to his thirty-seventh (by which time he was as an assistant professor), contain various disclaimers. Not really a journalist, not a nonfiction reader until his twenties, not a football player, not a novelist, Bissell whittles himself to a nub by the end of the collection — like Benjamin Button zooming toward innocence — and like an announcer introducing a bigger act, he bows out the back door of almost every essay. Think about the brilliance of this strategy: If you are a professional (I can hear him saying, no, no, not a professional!) noticer of culture (most especially, literary culture), doesn't it behoove you to remain as invisible as possible? The last thing that three-ring circus needs is another front and center ego!

And the older he gets, the more modest his point of view. In the first essay, Bissell writes in sweeping terms about the bigs of American literature — Melville, Whitman and Dickinson, "American literature's most influential troika." The last essay concerns a visit with the writer Jim Harrison, an old friend of his father's. (Harrison, I can say from experience, is the kind of writer who makes an indelible impression on an interviewer. One's appetite — for life, for food, for literature — improves.) Bissell gracefully captures the extent to which Harrison shows American readers the distance between the beauty of the place we live and the tawdriness we have allowed into our lives.

Indeed, many of these essays contain that pressure: the failure of true literary talent to make it through the publishing machine; the increasing gap between the language that readers and real people speak and the language of bureaucrats and media-monkeys. "I realize, then," he writes in "Escanaba's Magic Hour," "that this film is not intended for these men. Or for Escanaba. Or for any small town. It is meant, instead, for that know-nothing American monstrosity, the target audience." Bissell reluctantly reveals this and other fissures in this American life. He isn't chortling. He isn't preaching. He's just a writer.


April Bernard

Miss Fuller

This is the best kind of historical fiction — the kind that dives right in. With very little explanation or introduction, the reader finds herself in July of 1850. The Thoreau family has just received news that their friend — the brilliant, controversial writer, journalist, and feminist Margaret Fuller — has been killed in a shipwreck off the coast of Fire Island. Her Italian husband and two-year-old son have also been killed. Henry travels down to look through the wreckage in the hopes of finding the manuscript she was working on, "History of the Italian Revolution." Henry's exuberant younger sister Anne remembers Miss Fuller — her curious mind, her full figure, her appetite for life. She was a woman many men found threatening; one called her "excessively educated." Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Herald Tribune published her columns and her books but refused to advance her money. Nathaniel Hawthorne tragically kept her correspondence from his wife, Fuller's dear friend, Sophie.

Miss Fuller is a rich insight into the intellectual camaraderie and competition among the Transcendentalists. The story fairly bursts from the pressure of the early feminists striving to be heard at home, abroad, and in the hallowed halls of academia.

The heart of the novel lies in the letters that Margaret Fuller wrote to Sophie Hawthorne. Bernard has imagined (really, channeled) these letters so fully, capturing Margaret Fuller's courage and her insecurity, her breathless curiosity and her wisdom. In many ways, this is the most robust portrait we have of Fuller because Bernard uses fiction to fill in the gaps between Fuller's own words and the perceptions of others that history has tossed us.


James Franco

James Franco: The Dangerous Book Four Boys


It is hard not to feel motherly toward James Franco (thirty years ago I might have sung a different tune). He works so hard, as if chased by demons. By all counts, his scramble to practically bathe in art and literature, his mad dash at academia, Hollywood nipping at his heels all have him neck-deep in projects — no wonder he wants to cut loose, stick his tongue out, and live a boy's dangerous life! This book is based on Franco's 2010 multimedia art exhibit of the same name at the Clocktower Gallery in New York City. It is a "boyhood narrative through actual documents and objects made by and about [Franco] as a young boy," including home-movie clips, "collaged film pieces of fictional boyhood scenarios, and flickering montages of television shows" from Franco's youth. Many of the pages are scribbled over, drawn on, edited.

Franco was born in 1978 and grew up in Palo Alto. After a year studying English at UCLA, he dropped out and took acting classes with Robert Carnegie at Playhouse West. This book, and the exhibit, is full of the effort, the desire to go back to a time before he became famous and "displeased with certain inevitabilities of the world of commercial cinema," as Beatrice Johnson writes in her essay, "That Anxious Object of Desire." There is anxiety in every corner of this book — the relentless, pounding, anxiety of an adolescence buried under fame, clawing to have its day.


John Green

The Fault in our Stars

If only I could stop crying long enough to write about this damn book. (Since John Green is a "YA," or Young Adult novelist, I am getting an enormous amount of flack for this from friends and family.) Hazel is sixteen. She has stage IV thyroid cancer with mets in her lungs. She is too smart for platitudes and clichés and too young to die. Her mother understands that staying in bed watching America's Next Top Model reruns must have something to do with depression. So she sends Hazel to a support group that meets in a church basement, where kids with cancer sit in a circle that is meant to represent the heart of Christ. Hazel, who must be connected to an oxygen tank, can barely stand these weekly sessions until Augustus Waters appears one night. Him and his hot hot hotness; crooked grin, courtly insistence on her Natalie Portman-esque beauty, life-is-especially-short-so-let's-get-living attitude. Augustus is in remission, but he has lost a leg to osteosarcoma cancer.  His friend, Isaac is about to lose his remaining eye to cancer. The three friends play video games in Gus's basement. Gus and Hazel exchange favorite books.

Hazel has three best friends; her parents, and the author of her beloved An Imperial Affliction, about a girl with cancer. The book ends mid-sentence, and Hazel wants very much to know what happens — not to the main character, that seems obvious, but to the ones she leaves behind, including the hamster. She used her Make-A-Wish Foundation wish when she was thirteen (not to go to Disneyland, Augustus groans, but alas it is so), but Gus has not used his. They will go to Amsterdam to meet the author of An Imperial Affliction.

Plot aside (and yes, it is essentially hurtling toward death, like all plots), Green has got the voices of these teenagers down so beautifully, so wholly — each unique and brimming with love and potential and rage — that the plot falls away, or at least it did for this reader. (Bring on the Oprah jokes.) I just wanted to play video games with them in the basement. The book is so good, so moving without being cloying, that for the first time in my adult reading life I deliberately did not read the ending. Left the last 15 pages. Couldn't do it. Didn't want to. Longed for the novel that ended mid-sentence.

(The parents in this astonishing book are appropriately in the background, but their pain is, nonetheless, almost unbearable. Hazel's dad is a bit of a weeper. They try so hard and are so perfectly loving. And yet, of course, they hover. How could they not? Gus has already lost his first girlfriend to a brain tumor. Hazel feels for much of the novel like a human hand grenade in the lives of her parents and Gus. Her challenge (one of so many) is to get beyond this.)

To write about cancer in young people in this way takes a level of wisdom, a perspective, pure love, that most readers will only be able to imagine. Everything else seems like sentiment. Toward the end, Gus asks Hazel to recite a poem, any poem, and she chooses William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow," the tone of which perfectly fits this novel:

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


"And so much depends," Hazel tells Gus as they wait for an ambulance in a pre-dawn parking lot, "upon a blue sky cut open by the branches of the trees above. So much depends upon the transparent G-tube erupting from the gut of the blue-lipped boy. So much depends upon this observer of the universe":

Half-conscious, he glanced over at me and mumbled, "And you say you don't write poetry."


Sarah Manguso

The Guardians: An Elegy

What can a writer do? In 2008, Sarah Manguso's friend Harris jumped in front of a train pulling in to a station. In 2006, he had escaped from a psychiatric hospital after several psychotic breaks. In this book-length elegy, Manguso remembers, recreates her friend. They were never lovers, in that way. "We loved our secret. We thought it was that we didn't love each other." They lived together in a house of friends in Cambridge during college, then moved to an apartment in Manhattan. Harris liked whitefish. He "never listened to music on the subway...because he liked to hear the sounds of the city." From these and other details we readers come to know Harris.

Manguso meditates on his presence and his absence. She tries to inhabit, to understand, his psychotic breaks: "The dictionary defines psychosis as the abnormal condition of the mind, which doesn't narrow it down much. The clinical definition narrows it down to a loss of contact with reality, but how does one make contact with an abstraction?"

She remembers the times he would call from some other place and ask Sarah to find a road atlas and navigate him: "As in the old story, the wanderer hears a disembodied voice that leads him out of the desert. It worked so well that for months afterward, whenever he was lost, he called me. It was always nighttime in New York, and I'd look at a road atlas under my desk light and tell him what was there."

The Guardians is a portrait of a friendship, before, after, during. Manguso has made something indelible, which is what, I think, she set out to do.

LARB Contributor

Susan Salter Reynolds is a book critic and writer who lives in Los Angeles and Vermont. She has three children: Sam, Ellie, and Mia.


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