Tom Bissell is not a household name in Portland. But in the two years he has lived here, teaching creative writing at Portland State University, he has quietly ranked among the most dexterous, savvy and chameleonic wordsmiths in the country.
Bissell, 37, writes essays and short stories. His specialty—honed in five books, with another three on the way—is traveling to remote places and making them intensely personal.
He has written about the environmental cataclysm of Uzbekistan’s Aral Sea, and his own mental collapse as a Peace Corps volunteer nearby. (“The world could be unevenly divided into those who diet and those who starve, those who gobble antidepressants and those who die of curable diseases such as tuberculosis.”)
He has written about visiting Vietnam with his father to see the places where his Marine dad fought. (“The reason this was becoming a stock scene in the literature of Americans in the new Vietnam was that a confrontation with the lingering costs of war was inevitable for every American who came here.[...] Even a broken heart is a cliché.”)
On a lark, he and a friend wrote a book of fake DVD commentaries parodying political pundits like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn arguing over movies like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (“Zinn: You view the conflict as being primarily about pipe-weed, do you not?”)
He is relentlessly prolific: In the weeks between my first handshake with Bissell in early August and the article you’re reading, he wrote a profile for The New Yorker, reviewed the new Nicholson Baker novel in GQ and published four lengthy essays at the au courant sports-and-pop-culture website Grantland. In that same time, his story about a honeymoon gone wrong in Rome, “A Bridge Under Water,” was picked for The Best American Short Stories 2011 anthology.
“Tom’s work,” says the novelist Jonathan Franzen, “reminds me of both William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace—he has some of Vollmann’s peripatetic daredeviltry and encyclopedic ambitions, and some of Wallace’s manic prose energy and in-touchness with his demons—but he sounds like nobody but himself. For a writer his age, that’s saying a lot.”
When I arrived a month ago at the ground floor Pearl District apartment Bissell shares with girlfriend, Trisha Miller, he didn’t want to talk about his literary triumphs. He wanted to discuss what he’s currently writing about: video games, and a very bad movie called The Room.
“I started out writing about war and environmental catastrophe, and now I’m writing about cinematic catastrophe,” he mused, after preparing a lunch of lamburgers: mutton patties held together with feta cheese and cherry slices.
Since the publication of his fifth book, Extra Lives—Random House launched a 15,000-copy paperback run last month—Bissell has become the national magazine industry’s go-to essayist on video games like Mass Effect 3 and Gears of War.
At the same time, he has grown fixated on The Room—a 2003 movie notorious for its preposterous, fervent incompetence. Bissell has watched The Room at least 30 times. He is now collaborating with one of The Room’s supporting actors on a tell-all book about the making of the film.
As a finishing move, Bissell informed Portland State last month that he was quitting his job to move to Los Angeles and become a screenwriter at a video-game development company.
On the afternoon we met, Thomas Carlisle Bissell sat on his couch opposite two framed Harper’s covers with his name on them, watching a DVD of The Room on his plasma television—noticing for the first time that in the film’s opening sex scene the lead actress removes her lover’s necktie twice.
“Sweetie,” he excitedly called upstairs to Miller, “I just found a new Room continuity error!”
Is something seriously wrong with him?
The Tom Bissell C.V.:
Born in 1974 and raised in Escanaba, Mich., in the Upper Peninsula. English major at Michigan State; joined the Peace Corps in 1996. Deployed to Gulistan, Uzbekistan. Freaked out, flamed out, sent home. Worked as a book editor in New York City for most of his 20s. Returned to Uzbekistan in 2001 on a Harper’s assignment-cum-book deal. Published Chasing the Sea, ’03; God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories, ’05; The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam, ’07. Moved to Estonia to write a book about the tombs of the 12 apostles. Began playing video games. Playing a lot of video games. Playing them for 10 hours a day, three days on end. Literary output essentially vanished for two years. Returned in 2009-10 with magazine pieces of video-game criticism; eventually published the lot as Extra Lives last year.
The Tom Bissell look: a close-cropped shagginess, with a thick jaw and wide smile that lend him a friendly canine aspect; this, combined with his glasses and quiet erudition, recalls Mr. Peabody from the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. His speech is rapid but deliberate, and the effect is one of initiation—as if he were trying to include others on his intellectual playground.
The Tom Bissell mood: ambivalent about his career trajectory.