A whip-smart, occasionally pugnacious collection of essays on culture from a wide-ranging critic.
In recent years, Bissell (Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, 2010, etc.) has built a reputation as an expert on video games, culminating with the scattershot Extra Lives. Here, he covers a wider swath but provides more coherence, in part because a more consistent theme emerges: the necessity of calling shenanigans on the artificiality of much of mass culture and the difficult search for glimmers of integrity. In “Escanaba’s Magic Hour,” Bissell follows the filming of an indie movie in his hardscrabble Upper Peninsula hometown and cannily reveals subtle parrying between the townsfolk and the visiting filmmakers. In “Writing about Writing about Writing,” he demolishes the rhetoric of how-to writing guides, slapping the genre for its disingenuously upbeat declarations. In “Cinema Crudité,” he investigates the anti-genius of Tommy Wiseau, director of the contemporary camp classic, The Room. Bissell can tear into his subjects with a ferocity and brutal wit that recalls Dwight Macdonald, as when he writes about the would-be literary provocateurs of the Underground Literary Alliance or celebrated historian Robert Kaplan, whom he damns as an “incompetent thinker and a miserable writer.” Bissell’s more common tone, though, is that of the exasperated critic weary of conventional thinking, and he bookends the collection with pieces that drive that point home: “Unflowered Aloes” debunks the idea that literary greatness will always be discovered, and the closing interview with Jim Harrison is a lament for a dying working-class literary culture. Even the book’s weak spots are strong: A pair of New Yorker profiles on TV and video game professionals feel relatively voiceless—a problem with the magazine’s house style that, ironically enough, Bissell calls out in an earlier essay.
Stellar cultural writing—Bissell has the knowledge and wit to earn his provocations.