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September 21st, 2011 12:01 am AARON MESH | Cover Story

Professor Xbox

Tom Bissell is Portland's finest writer. Why is he spending his time on video games and bad movies?

He has become the leading critic of an art form he finds innovative and idiotic. He has penned that “any writer who is not interested in what we are now calling ‘video games’ is a bystander to one of the most important conceptual shifts between story and storyteller in a hundred years.”

But he also writes in Extra Lives about the doubts raised by arguing about the storytelling economy of Left 4 Dead: “I then realized I was contrasting my aesthetic sensitivity to that of some teenagers about a game that concerns itself with shooting as many zombies as possible. It is moments like this that can make it so dispiritingly difficult to care about video games.”

Extra Lives is the first book-length argument about whether video games can be art: In it, Bissell makes a case that interactivity—the game player making changes in the story with every push of the PlayStation console—is both an insurmountable problem and a liberating narrative sea change.

HEAVENLY SWORD: Bissell was embedded with Marines in Iraq in 2005.
Image courtesy of Tom Bissell
Reviews of Extra Lives were mostly exultant, though Dwight Garner was one of the few naysayers in a New York Times review, saying he loved the writer but not the topic: “Reading it was like sitting on a hot tractor, mowing a big weedy field of Ambien.”

In fact, Bissell wrote much of it on cocaine.

He confessed this while once again sitting on his couch, in our second interview. He was chewing Nicorette gum—“My one lasting addiction; I will chew it ’til the day I die”—and playing Far Cry 2, a first-person shooter game set among mercenaries ravaging a post-colonial African country. Bissell, who has spent his share of time in war zones (he was embedded with Marines in Iraq in 2005), believes Far Cry 2 is a profound statement about “the behavioral and emotional consequences of being exposed to relentless violence.” At the moment, however, he was just wandering through the burning savanna.

“The only chapter of Extra Lives that had no drug influence at all was the last one,” Bissell said softly.

That chapter, titled “Grand Thefts,” is the best thing in an ambitious but uneven book: a grappling with intertwined binges on cocaine and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City—habits that reached a nadir in 2008, when Bissell was living in Tallinn, Estonia, ostensibly writing his early-Christianity book but in fact traveling in a perpetual loop from ATM to Russian drug dealer to Xbox 360. Revisiting those nights, Bissell finds parallels between himself and his car-stealing avatar, Niko: “He was trying, he was doing his best, but he was falling into habits and ways of being that did not reflect his best self.”

Bissell quit cocaine not long after Sept. 12, 2008: the day David Foster Wallace hanged himself.

Wallace is the writer Bissell most obviously resembles—and has modeled himself after. “I probably stole more from him than any other writer,” Bissell has said. The two played chess several times, bonding over a shared fondness for dipping tobacco.

“I was living in Estonia the day I found out David Wallace killed himself,” he said. “That was just one of the most terrifying thoughts possible. This person who wrote with so much joy and perceptiveness was in fact an incredibly tormented, dark soul who was willing to pay out to himself and everyone who loved him the ultimate punishment. The existential implications of that were so terrifying and so profound I kind of went into a tailspin.”

He was frightened enough by his subsequent cocaine binge that, when he returned to Michigan, he attended a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.

“And you’re not allowed to talk about what goes on in those meetings, but I will say that I went to one meeting and listened to people’s stories—most of which involved crystal methamphetamine—and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, I went to pieces living abroad in a fancy European country. I don’t belong here. My problems are manageable. I’m 37 years old, and I have neither the time nor the physical vitality to keep subjecting myself to this kind of stuff.’”

His stimulants are now more benign: His refrigerator is stocked with bottles of Diet Dr. Pepper, and the pride of his spotless apartment is a $149 SodaStream Fizz home soda maker, which he uses to blend his own generic root beer and Diet Coke.

“Substance abuse and I...I hope and I think that’s a story that is mostly over,” Bissell said as he bagged trash in his kitchen. “But you know what? I’ll say this: I think the Grand Theft Auto chapter in Extra Lives is one of the best things I’ve ever written, and I would happily go through every drug-induced terror and self-mutilation to have written that piece. Seems to me like a very fair bargain.”

Bissell wrote the end of Extra Lives back in his hometown of Escanaba, leveling out of a depressive plunge. In the Upper Peninsula, he began dating Miller, a friend from high school. When PSU offered Bissell a teaching gig in its Master of Fine Arts program, he and Miller decided to move to Portland together. 

In Portland, he embraced his teacher’s role, sharing his vulnerabilities with other young writers. “He wrote seven- or eight-page letters in response to every story I turned in,” says Chelsea Bieker, an MFA student in his spring-semester fiction workshop. “He always used to ask if we felt ‘understood and well-served’ at the end of each workshop.”

He also found The Room.

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