Tom Bissell knows people, down to their deepest faults, but his empathy doesn’t let his characters off the hook. Things end badly for them, if thrillingly for the reader. If I wanted to box Bissell as a pessimist, I wouldn’t put him into the over-the-top category of a Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer’s pessimism about humanity is so deep that it’s funny (tragicomically, it strikes a raw nerve), but his conclusion is almost sweet:
the world sucks, we’re the devils in it, so lighten up and be kind because we’re all in this shithole together.
In other words, if you take pessimism to its extreme, you end up with a resigned empathy for others, an exhausted compassion. Bissell’s new book, despite being characterized in every review as grim and bleak, even on its own dustjacket, is actually not grim or bleak enough to come back around and give its own world-weary self a hug.
Most of the characters are mowed down, almost without a second chance. Most literary fiction, for some reason, takes as its central tenet the inevitability of human solitude and suffering, and that is Bissell’s tenet as well, confirmed by the doom that darkens his stories.
Bissell is an excellent writer, conscious of his language, and committed to characterization. Bissell travels his dictionary as much as the world, and for his efforts toward expanding his vocabulary, he should be recognized. Only occasionally does his language break the spell of his fictional world. “[R]ather like a sexually timid girl turning incandescent atop a boy she finally trusts, the death of his parents now allowed Douglas the consort of some unfamiliar, someday self he’d always been denied.” This sentence is unfortunate in several ways, and an editor should’ve caught it. The simile defeats comprehension, and the placement of the modifying phrase is grammatically wrong, suggesting that “the death of his parents” is like “a sexually timid girl.” At any rate, this kind of error is rare. Bissell more often successfully risks heavy-handedness for provocative analogies: knuckles like rivets, the “barbed wire” of eyelashes, a “xylophonic rib cage,” an “umbilical breezeway.”
Bissell’s characters are not hollow shells of wanton caprice, rambling here and there in amoral ennui simply because they don’t care what happens to them or anyone else. There is no nihilism here and no caricatures. In most cases, the characters, whether aimless or willful, get themselves in over their heads. Situations control. Plot is fate. Bissell’s characters are not evil self-destructive creatures. Instead, they lack insight into themselves, lack foresight into the consequences of their actions, and lack power to overcome their circumstances. These are anti-heroes not in a mocking or satirical sense but in the sense that the individual cannot overcome every obstacle. These characters, in other words, are victims.
This fact adds to the drama, compressing the action beneath looming mortality. Stories end with a marriage or a funeral, as the saying goes, and Bissell’s funerals are commonly unceremonious deaths (either literally or figuratively; I’m not going to spoil the endings for you). In the title story, the most morally complex, even what passes for a marriage consummation is instead experienced as a corrupt denial, a transgressive sham. Delusion masquerades as hope.
Structure is straightforward. In certain (not all) stories, the crisis comes first, with flashbacks providing backstory, and then the story lurches forward again. In one story, “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” Bissell breaks a rule often hammered into the heads of creative-writing students (“never tease the reader by withholding critical information”), but he does so for a satisfyingly structural reason (an interwoven concluding scene). Most other stories generate suspense about the fates of the characters, not about the revelations of withheld information.
(Digression on the Abdication of Judgment: the title story, a Pushcart Prize-winner, veers dangerously close, twice, to defeating itself. The main character, a confused lapsed missionary turned confused lapsed English teacher, guiltily indulges his lusts to the point where he nearly loses consciousness [but can still quote Paul the Apostle]. Later, he blacks out, somewhat incredibly, a moment of violent impulse. And, at the end, a moment of truth is, again, passed over, occurring, if you will, offstage. Readers catch up with the aftermath. In other stories in the collection, characters admit they don’t know how they got where they are or why they are here. The characters intend these admissions, I hope, disengenuously, that is, they’re basically admitting they made poor judgments, not that they made no judgments at all. But in this collection, and in other contemporary collections I’ve read recently [Eggers’ How We Are Hungry, for one example], the narrative tendency to feature characters who are victims of circumstance, rather than willful actors, might be suggesting something else, perhaps something larger. Authorial sympathy for overwhelmed and passive sufferers might be a symptom of the individual’s powerlessness in the world. If this recalls the existential paralysis of Beckett and the bureaucratic surreality of Kafka, one must also admit that it recalls survivor narratives, in which institutions of fascism, oppression and slavery overpower the individual, who nevertheless finds ways, however meager, to fight back, to endure, to make and leave a mark. The crucial difference [among many] lies in the capacity for judgment, a capacity contemporary characters seem willing to abdicate (in particular, young Americans abroad and adrift from the belief in self-determination). I don’t know how I got here. Did I do that? I don’t remember. I forget. I don’t know what I want. What can you do? I don’t intend to make Bissell bear the weight of this observation; I only recommend keeping an eye out for it in other contemporary work. See, for example, the essay “Ready-made Rebellion,” by Jonathan Dee in the April 2005 Harper’s, in which Dee writes, “One of contemporary fiction’s most frustrating tropes, however, holds that even the most shocking transgression is made psychologically credible when a character carries it out not for exotic or obscure reasons but for no reason whatsoever.” A long time ago, the Sex Pistols snarled, “Pretty vacant,” and now, apparently, we get the vacant without the pretty, or the snarl. My point, though, is not about transgressive acts but about dramatic ones, critical narrative actions from which the author recuses his character, as if to allow a character to make a judgment is just too presumptuous. Anyway, like I said, a digression.)
Because Bissell has actually visited several of the places in which he sets his fiction (see his nonfiction book, Chasing the Sea: Being a Narrative of a Journey through Uzbekistan . . . Culminating with an Arrival at the Aral Sea, etc.), he inserts interesting and timely information as it becomes relevant in the story (facts about war, geography, other cultures, etc.). But the artistry here occasionally seems in service of a kind of creative non-fiction or journalistic fiction. Reading, I was always wondering what Tom Bissell actually went through and what he invented. In an author’s note, Bissell feels compelled to identify his specific inventions because so much of the impact of his fiction depends on historical, cultural and geographic fact.
Given America’s mixed reputation in the world, you can easily interpret these stories as little punishments. Characters are motivated to become a kind of person (a combat photographer, a scientist, a missionary) and to achieve in their field, even if far afield (Afghanistan, the Aral Sea, Kazakhstan), but narrative conflicts seem to happen to them, to take them by surprise and engulf them, leaving them no space in which to make meaningful choices. They are killed, kidnapped, stranded, beleaguered. For characters to fight back and escape would lead us into adventure, a genre into which Bissell refuses to tread (he dips quickly a toe into said waters in “The Ambassador’s Son,” but, again, no one gets out intact). He seems to want to remind us that things don’t always end well for well-intentioned Americans abroad. Leave the shadow of Lady Liberty, and you bear the brunt of America’s complex global reputation, visited upon you with your every misstep or misspeak. This book is nearly an anti-tourism guide full of cautionary tales of globe-trotting Americans. In “The Ambassador’s Son,” the decadent hedonistic young narrator remarks, “Of all the young American Do-Gooders I’d seen dragging their crushed aspirations behind them, gushing stale idealism the way a slashed tire gushes air, I don’t know why I felt any urge to pal around with this one.” The stories almost slip into moralizing by virtue of their Grimm’s fairy-tale endings, and yet Bissell is smart enough to anticipate that his well researched journalistic-inspired fictions could be perceived as serving just desserts for naďve, arrogant Americans. So, if Bissell foresaw (he must have) that he might threaten the roundness of his fiction by risking accusations of moralizing (beware the bad things beyond America’s door!), what was he making the risk for? I’m speaking art-wise here. For what art in the fiction is this moral risk made?
My guess is that he was shooting for urgency and relevance with his short stories. Short stories are perfect vehicles for condensing messy info-overload realities into tight, emotionally intense dramatic forms. Here Bissell has succeeded wonderfully. If you regard the fiction writer’s mission to write about the heat, heart, and blood of contemporary life, then you’ve got to give Bissell his due for trekking out to the hot spots of the greater world, the war zones and battle grounds, the political quagmires and cultural backwaters, and dramatizing personally and socially urgent dilemmas. How many other writers are doing this and writing literary, rather than genre, fiction? You may fault him for always relying on Americans for his main characters; in several stories, Americans appear to be thinly veiled stand-ins for Bissell himself, which is forgivable, I think, because every story so bravely exposes the emotional conflicts within these Americans-out-of-water characters. But you can’t fault the nobility of Bissell’s imperative: to go out into the world and write about what scares you the most, even if it’s still yourself.