Tom Bissell’s new essay collection, Magic Hours, opens—in what can be taken as a challenge or a gesture of self-justification—with “Unflowered Aloes,” his 2000 meditation on the tenuousness of literary immortality. Why do some works survive, Bissell asks, while others are lost to posterity? The reader may note that this is a book of previously published magazine work, rescued from the recycling bin and bound in a volume as Essays on Creators and Creation.
“Unflowered Aloes” is certainly worthy of an ISBN number. Bissell wrote it, he explains in his author’s note, as “a twenty-five year old assistant editor”—that is, a still-youthful reader who had been initiated in the hard business of publishing at W. W. Norton & Company, and who was using that knowledge to reread cultural history. Why, really, did Emily Dickinson’s writing overcome her obscurity? How did Herman Melville, after death, transcend the critics’ disdain? How many geniuses failed to catch the same breaks?
Literary survival, Bissell argues, is less the triumph of merit than “an accumulation of unliterary accidents.” That fatalistic insight, though, leads to a more hopeful one. A good critic is not “a noncombatant observer upon literature’s battlefield”; one actively engaged reader, a passionate enough essayist, may turn the outcome.
That essay is followed by “Escanaba’s Magic Hour,” in which Bissell returns to his hometown on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to watch the making of a semimajor motion picture there. The interaction between the film-industry outsiders and the locals leads Bissell into a sharply observed sketch of a particular moment in American relations between regional life and mass culture—the mythologized isolation of the small town now attuned to a “pulsar, as distant as it is familiar, as relentless as it is indifferent.” He records the process of on-location moviemaking through the eyes of a geographical double or triple agent, an Escanaban in literary New York turned New Yorker in unliterary Escanaba, his belonging interwoven with alienation. Walking down Main Street to Rosy’s Diner, where the crew is shooting, he writes, “I suddenly realize that I have not, as clearly as I can remember, ever before walked down Main Street. As a boy I dirt-biked the whole of Main Street almost daily, and as an adult I have driven down it thousands of times. . . . No one walks in Escanaba. Ever.”
Bissell is an assured and engaging first-person narrator, which is a rarer ability than many first-person writers know. While his body stands around, his line of thought is agile and ever moving, from the observational to the philosophical, from the personal to the general. He is agreeable, even when the reader may disagree with him. Did a low-level publishing employee just casually dismiss Mark Twain from the first, most “profound” rank of American novelist? Wow, he did. Let’s get a beer and talk that one over sometime.
Nowhere does this gift for being personable serve Bissell better than in “Grief and the Outsider,” in which he takes on the combativeness and the resentments of the Underground Literary Alliance, a group that exists to castigate the publishing world and the writers who succeed in it. “The ULA routinely refers to ‘cushy’ university and editorial positions,” Bissell writes, “when in reality those jobs are tenuous, difficult, and roughly as cushy as a six-foot-tall cactus.” Big Publishing is even less intimidating now than it was in 2003, when Bissell wrote to defend it, but the essay is worth studying purely as a masterpiece of tactics. He moves deliberately, protects his flanks, until—in the most cruel and most gracious maneuver—he evaluates the ULA members’ own literary work, and is not entirely dismissive of it.
There are moments, reading this midwesterner who has thought seriously about his subjects and now wishes to speak plainly about them, that the voice on the page—its erudition tempered by politeness or maybe humility—carries an echo of the tone of the late David Foster Wallace. Indeed, Wallace himself shows up later in the book, more than once.
By then, though, Magic Hours has taken a turn for the worse. The further the book goes—the essays arrive chronologically—the clearer it becomes that its rubric about “Creators and Creation” is a flimsy bag thematically. Bissell’s real subject here is something closer to “success,” or even “fame.” And success does not seem to suit him.
Bissell in his twenties is a better, more interesting writer than Bissell in his thirties. His thoughts range farther; his assignments are worthier. Over time, his charm descends into grim tendentiousness. First quietly in a profile of Werner Herzog, then loudly in a celebration of the literary global correspondent Ryszard Kapuściński, Bissell declares his opposition to the “the sheriffs of nonfiction” who would cruelly chain artists to “the subtle tyranny of what happened.” Such literalists are “contentedly earthbound,” while Kapuściński, with his “courage” and his nonadherence to fact, “changed the way many of us think about nonfiction.”
Indeed. For instance, now when I read about Bissell going to meet Herzog along streets “lined on one side with tattoo parlors and the other with ‘laser tattoo removal’ specialists, among whom one Dr. Tattoff stood out,” I do not think those businesses were quite so neatly segregated, and when I was moved to Google Dr. Tattoff, I discovered it was the name of a chain.
Somewhere, words stopped helping Bissell out. He describes a particularly indefensible Kapuściński quotation, about Africans lacking a concept of evil, as “careless.” In an essay on Wallace and his Kenyon College commencement address, Bissell declares that anyone who objects to the publication and marketing of the famous speech as a padded-out inspirational book-totem with the original text’s suicidal imagery “gently removed,” as he puts it, must have “a small, charred heart.”
So what begins with Melville and Dickinson arrives, near the end, at a pair of blandly professional New Yorker profiles, one of a video-game voice-over actress and one of a successful sitcom creator. If Magic Hours offers a subtextual narrative of what writerly success means, the New Yorker would be its Mephistopheles: Here’s something to do with your gifts—go talk to the guy who does Two and a Half Men!
In lieu of the video-game piece, I would have preferred rereading Bissell’s madcap 2010 essay for The Guardian, in which he confesses that he’d spent three years neglecting reading and writing in favor of bingeing on cocaine and playing Grand Theft Auto—an essay that a friend reminded me of when I lamented the decline in quality through Magic Hours. Having already read the New Yorker pieces, all that I gleaned from the versions in Magic Hours was that in addition to restoring some of his more personal ruminations, Bissell had stetted some typos and an error or two. The ending of the sitcom piece pivots on the wording of a punch line, for which Magic Hours and the magazine’s fact-checkers provide different text. But I am a sheriff of fact.
Yet the ending of the book is not all despair. The final piece finds Bissell going to visit the novelist Jim Harrison, a lifelong inspiration of his, in Montana. Bissell is not happy with what his own literary life has come to. He identifies his burden not as the fame, or the drugs, or the bland blandishments of Eustace Tilley, but as his workload as a writing teacher. Fair enough. Still, whether or not the academic paycheck is to blame, Bissell perceives that there’s a problem. After parting from Harrison, he goes to gaze at Old Faithful, which—weakened by age—fails to erupt. “I knew by then I would be quitting my teaching job,” he writes. “It felt too good to be outside.” I hope he means it.
Tom Scocca is the managing editor of Deadspin and writes a column for Slate. He is the author of Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future (Riverhead, 2011).