Essays on culture, and the essayist

Courtesy: McSweeney's
Essay collections are like bags of jellybeans. If the candy-maker is a high-quality brand like, say, Jelly Belly, then even the flavors you don’t love will be pretty good. Such is the case with Magic Hours, a collection of essays out this month from journalist Tom Bissell that covers brainytopics ranging from the war reporting of Robert D. Kaplan to the documentary films of Werner Herzog.

Bissell, who now writes regularly about video games for ESPN’s Grantland, is engaging enough — usually, but not always — to make interesting even those essays whose topics seem unlikely to absorb the mainstream reading public. Most of Bissell’s subjects are abstruse, but it’s a journalist’s job to make any topic interesting, right? Just be forewarned that the real subject in most of the essays collected here is Bissell himself.

When he writes about the filming of a 2001 Jeff Daniels indie movie in Escanaba, Mich., the essay becomes a personal reflection on his hometown, because Bissell grew up in Escanaba. Writing about an intriguing, nerdy sect called the Underground Literary Alliance, he mentions John Kennedy Toole’s beloved novel A Confederacy of Dunces, which is indeed relevant, but he can’t resist including his own review(“one of the most overrated novels ever published”). A profile of the wilderness novelist Jim Harrison, who happens to be a friend of Bissell’s father, is as much about Bissell as about Harrison.

All of this is perfectly fine — it’s why Bissell calls these works of reportage “essays.” Nowadays, the word signals a license to depart from strict objectivity via authorial comments, interjections and snarky asides. Of course, if you were looking for a straight-faced account of Tommy Wiseau’s cult movie The Room, you would head to Wikipedia rather than reading Bissell’s engaging but highly personalized interpretation.

Magazine journalism has been headed this way for decades, especially journalism on the quirky, pop culture subjects that Bissell favors. Even mainstream celebrity profiles in glossy magazines like GQ and Esquire freely use the first-person voice, and feature the reactions and inner monologue of the author as much as quotes from the subject.

In an Author’s Note, Bissell notes that after his Jeff Daniels essay appeared, an editor assigned him to go report on NASA in Canada, to which Bissell responded: “You’re aware that I’m not actually a journalist?” Nonetheless, these essays are works of journalism. Bissell is reporting from events or in-person interviews, but also acting as a guide to the reader, reminding us constantly of his presence. (See, also, the nonfiction of John Jeremiah Sullivan, Mary Roach, or David Foster Wallace, a writer whom Bissell openly worships.)

It is no surprise, then, that the two least indulgent essays, from which Bissell is mostly absent, both appeared first in The New Yorker. (One is on sitcom-king Chuck Lorre of Two and a Half Men fame, the other on video-game voiceover actor Jennifer Hale). Other pieces were originally published in outlets like The Believer, which, as an imprint of McSweeney’s, happens to be the publisher of this book.

Bissell arranges Magic Hours chronologically by when he wrote them. This demonstrates his clear growth as a writer, but breaks the commonsense rule of beginning a collection with the best it has to offer. The opening piece is the book’s most boring, even for fans of Dickinson, Melville and Whitman; the essays toward the end are far stronger.

In that Author’s Note, Bissell argues that “these essays are about magic” because, “to create anything — whether a short story or a magazine profile or a film or a sitcom — is to believe, if only momentarily, you are capable of magic.” It’s an appealing thought, but a tenuous argument at best. People create things all the time without believing they constitute magic, or any achievement at all.

Thematically, the work he has selected lacks any connective tissue. Sure, in a big-picture sense they all cover pop culture mainstays: Of the book’s 15 essays, nine are about writing, four are about film, one is on television, and one on video games. But drill down and they are narrow in focus.

The strongest essay in the collection, “Cinema Crudité,” is about The Room, by all accounts a very bad movie that nonetheless still shows at late-night screenings all over the country and brings devotees out in droves. A significant portion of the movie’s “fans” seem to enjoy ridiculing Wiseau, who wrote, directed, and stars in the film. Bissell handles this irony respectfully and humorously: “Why are so many people responding to this… Is it the satisfaction of seeing the auteur myth cruelly exploded, of watching an artist reach for the stars and wind up with his hand around a urinal cake?”

When he meets Wiseau in person, Bissell admirably avoids taking unfair jabs at him, though he’s also honest with us about what he felt during the meeting. When Wiseau says his goal is for 90% of Americans to see The Room, Bissell tells us, “At this I all but laughed in his face.”

He similarly strips his own process bare in the piece on Jim Harrison, which was published just last summer in Outside and closes out the book. Bissell readily mentions the hangover he suffered after the first night of drinking with Harrison. He adds that he was too scared, initially, to join Harrison in checking out a snake den on his property. Bissell recounts how David Foster Wallace once discovered an essay by Harrison, and mentioned liking the piece in a letter to Bissell. He then fawns: “For a young writer just starting out, this was indescribable. Two of my literary heroes were talking to each other, as it were, through me.” Yes, the conclusion smacks slightly, perhaps, of the self-congratulatory, but it’s hard not to appreciate his pride and candor.

In fact Bissell shines most when he meets his subjects face-to-face, rather than expounding in a vacuum. That’s true of the Escanaba essay (Bissell hung around during shooting), the Herzog analysis (Bissell interviewed the venerated filmmaker at his home), and the Wiseau and Harrison profiles.

A few essays could have been omitted. One is a gratuitous defense of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Another is an all-too-brief account of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 speech at Kenyon College, which Wallace’s publisher packaged as a coffee-table book called This Is Water. Bissell’s rather nasty critique of author Robert D. Kaplan is another head-scratcher.

It’s anyone’s guess as to why Bissell did not include his outstanding 2010 Guardian piece about becoming addicted to Grand Theft Auto and cocaine. Perhaps he didn’t want two essays on video games in there, or felt he should stick to stories that first appeared in magazines.

No matter. Magic Hours has a lot to love and very little to skip. Film buffs should enjoy the deep dives into literary phenomena, and vice-versa: A lit nerd who might be bored stiff by film analysis (especially analysis of a subversive German director or of a Vietnam War documentary) will still be drawn in. For media businessaficionados, Bissell delivers front-row insight into the production process in Hollywood and beyond, from the outdoor set of the movie Escanaba in da Moonlight, to the indoor set of the sitcom Mike & Molly and the recording booth of the video game Mass Effect 3.

Reading Bissell’s essays will educate you on a vast range of intellectual and cultural minutiae. You will also learn a lot, perhaps more than you bargained for, about the essayist Tom Bissell.

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