Critic’s Notebook: Essays tiptoe up to grab us unawares

Author Tom Bissell.
(Hendrik Dey / McSweeny’s)

Essays sneak up on us. They are — or often feel — accidental: the record of a writer wrestling with an idea, an observation, a slice of experience, of a writer figuring it out. They have a conditional quality, as if they could go in any direction, offering impressions more than conclusive points of view. As Tom Bissell notes at the beginning of “Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation”: “When I am asked ... for advice on how to get started as a nonfiction writer, I tell them to start small and look around.”

There it is, the idea exactly: Keep your eyes open and follow where the language leads. In “Magic Hours” (Believer Books: 304 pp., $14), Bissell introduces a video game actress and a collective of disgruntled writers called the Underground Literary Alliance. He considers the career of Werner Herzog and a Hollywood cult filmmaker named Tommy Wiseau. On some level, of course, he is always writing about himself. “The overwhelming majority of a writer’s time,” he points out, “is spent wondering why this world is not as vivid as he or she once — agonizingly, deludedly — believed. To write is to fail, more or less, constantly.”

Yes, yes, I want to say, and what you’re reading is a case in point because I have failed already at what I meant to do. My intention, when I began thinking about Bissell, was to frame his book, along with Mark Dery’s “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams” (University of Minnesota Press: 336 pp., $24.95), as representative of the contemporary essay, which I believe is in a renaissance.

And yet, that this hasn’t quite worked out is probably as it should be, for the essay is so diverse it can’t be encapsulated; it’s far too idiosyncratic a form. Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Geoff Dyer’s “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition,” John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Pulphead,” Dubravka Ugresic’s “Karaoke Culture,” Jonathan Franzen’s “Farther Away”: These are just a few recent books that walk an exhilarating tightrope between the personal and the critical, their most fundamental inquiries those the authors make about themselves.


We see something similar in both “Magic Hours” and “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts,” which resemble and don’t resemble each other in compelling ways. Each is personal, if not overtly autobiographical, and each frames point of view through the lens of culture, asking questions about a variety of subjects, then using the answers as jumping-off points. Each gathers magazine and newspaper pieces: Bissell’s from Harper’s, the New Yorker and the Believer and Dery’s from the Los Angeles Times, Bookforum and the Village Voice.

In Bissell’s case, this often emerges from reporting. In “Escanaba’s Magic Hour,” he uses a movie shoot in his Michigan hometown to reflect on identity and the peculiar isolation of rural life. “As teenagers,” he remembers, “Mike and I used to drive two hours to the nearest big city — this was Green Bay, Wis. — hungry for escape. Only there could we see ‘Reservoir Dogs’ or ‘Malcolm X.’”

For him, this is something of a mixed blessing: His small town didn’t offer much, but at least its isolation gave it a personality of its own. Bissell embraces that, noting that, in our age of and Twitter, such an experience is not available anymore. These days, he suggests, we’ve come to occupy a vast virtual suburbia, in which our shared obsessions (pop cultural or otherwise) are nothing if not mass-produced. “The Movie People,” Bissell writes, “have come to capture Escanaba’s isolation … but it is an isolation that is, increasingly, identical to that of a thousand towns just like it.”

This idea, that we have lost our roots, infuses much of Bissell’s writing — and (not coincidentally) Dery’s too. It is the driving theme of both books: How do we make sense of the world as mash-up in which, Dery argues, everything, including pop, high culture, conspiracy theory, sexual politics, faith and advertising, has come to seem roughly equivalent in the floating cultural stew?

For the essayist, Dery argues, the solution is to function as a provocateur, although an irony of his collection is that for all its contemporaneity (essays on Lady Gaga and Jared Lee Loughner, spam and extreme Internet porn), it operates out of a late 20th century amber in which the touchstones are William Burroughs and David Bowie, Don DeLillo andJ.G. Ballard. Still, if this gives “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” a slightly recycled air, it works, more often than not, because recycling is part of what the book is about.

“It’s a postmodern truism,” Dery writes in a piece called “Shoah Business,” about the commercialism of the Holocaust, “that representations — photos, moving images, digital renderings, theme-park simulations — are displacing experience and historical memory.” So what do we do about it? One answer comes at the end of the essay, when Dery describes a video installation of people eating in the cafeteria at Auschwitz, a building where inmates were once “registered, robbed, tattooed, shaved, disinfected, and dressed in the familiar striped pajamas … a ‘humiliating baptism into the kingdom of death.’”

This juxtaposition of gluttony and mass genocide is striking, but Dery pushes even further, subverting our judgments, and his own. “Watching their videos,” he writes, “we wonder what sort of human can eat lunch in a death camp? … In a creepy, deeply disorienting turnaround, we suddenly find ourselves face-to-face with our inner Nazis, the side of us that reassures us that the difference between us and the unfeeling creatures chowing down in a death-camp cafeteria is that they are somehow less than human.”

What Dery is saying is that in a culture of image, of simulation, we need to look beyond the obvious, even (or especially) if it discomforts us. A similar idea also infuses Bissell’s writing, which uses reportage and commentary to raise all sorts of questions — not least about our sense of truth itself. This emerges most directly in his profile of Herzog, in which Bissell defends the director’s tendency to stage scenes in his documentaries, arguing that, in the right hands, facts are less important than point of view.


“Herzog,” he points out, “is an artist, not a journalist. An artist can respect the backfield of fact before which every human being stands and choose not to address those facts.” It’s a provocative point, and by addressing it directly, Bissell challenges our preconceptions, which is exactly what an essayist ought to do.