I saw the best mind of my generation, and he asked me to watch a crappy movie.
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.
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.
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.
Bissell's second night in his Pearl District apartment was also the first night The Room ever screened theatrically in Portland. When he went for a walk around the block on Aug. 15, 2009, he found a crowd of 500 people waiting in line at Cinema 21 to watch a six-year-old movie.
"It's proof that you don't have any fucking idea what life has in store for you," Bissell said over Moroccan kebabs and beer before he took me to another late show of the movie. "The Room and Portland seem made for each other."
The Room was released in 2003, a self-funded project by Tommy Wiseau, a director of indeterminate Eastern European origins. He meant it as a statement about emotional betrayal. It became a Plan 9 From Outer Space for a generation looking for its own Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The dreadfulness of Wiseau's opus is obvious. Characters appear without introduction, speak without feeling and behave without motivation. Wiseau himself plays the all-American hero, who seems more like a barbiturate-addled bouncer at a Budapest nightclub. The movie's best performance is given by a gun-wielding drug dealer on screen for 90 seconds.
Portland has embraced the movie with typical ironic ardor. Menomena drummer Danny Seim held private shows at his house before the Cinema 21 screenings began. The lobby of Cinema 21 is currently decorated with Tommy Wiseau bobbleheads and a poster explaining what audiences should shout at the screen
Bissell believes Portland's love for The Room has something to do with the city's rejection of conventional success. "The culture around The Room is this valorization of an indie, do-it-yourself aesthetic," he said. "There's a celebration of the outlaw aspects of The Room. But this is not just Portland: A large part of the [national] audience sees this film without trying to figure out what human sadness lurks underneath the surface of it."
The Room is a naked statement of Wiseau's personal feelings. The plot (such as it is) is effectively a teenage boy's self-pitying fantasy of how, if he killed himself, everyone would regret how mean they had been to him. The abject solipsism is an invitation for giggles. Many people have taken Wiseau up on that invitation.
Bissell saw the opportunity for his great nonfiction novel. In August, Bissell started the book. He wrote 80 pages in a week.
He has compared Wiseau to the hero of The Great Gatsby, another self-funded outsider seeking lost love. "Jay Gatski," he chuckled. "Part of my goal with this book is to take those skinny-jeaned hipsters and make them think twice about laughing at The Room too hard ever again."
As soon as Bissell's girlfriend, Miller, arrived in Portland, he wanted her to view his Room DVD. She has now watched the movie 15 times.
"What does he see in it?" says Miller, an actress now performing in the Artists Repertory Theatre production of God of Carnage. "Gosh. What does he not see in it? I just think he realizes…the 100 percent sincerity [with which] Tommy Wiseau makes every artistic decision in the film. I think a lot of creative people like us wish we had that much self-confidence."
Bissell published an essay in Harper's last summer contemplating the film's "sincerealism." One of the readers was Greg Sestero, a male model who played The Room's linchpin character Mark, Johnny's turncoat best friend. Bissell and Sestero met in Los Angeles, and soon began work on a memoir of the actor's fraught friendship with Wiseau (tentatively titled Locked Inside The Room, it's slated to be published in 2013 by Simon & Schuster). Bissell kept the stories in a notebook titled âMy Sestero Journey.â
"I think Greg's and my desire is the same: to write something first-rate about something fifth-rate," Bissell said. "At some point I kind of realized: This could be the novel I never write."
It sounded, I ventured, like Bissell was trying to create his In Cold Blood.
âAs pathetic as that sounds, thatâs kind of how Iâm trying to think of it, yeah,â he said. âI want it to be that riveting.â
Two weeks ago, at Sellwood's former funeral home-turned-concert venue the Woods, Bissell stood on the small stage for the music and literature weekend This! Fest and read a story about a blowjob.
It was a passage from his story, "A Bridge Under Water," which was selected for the Best American Short Stories 2011 collection. The selection—which described the giving of oral sex from the point of view of the female protagonist—was daring and funny and sad.
"She wondered why they were otherwise getting along so well," he read aloud to laughter from the audience, "and had the brief, horrified thought that maybe couples in newly dead marriages got along in a way akin to the cheerfulness of people about to kill themselves."
Get ready for more of that prose.
McSweeney's is preparing a book anthology of Bissell's magazine pieces, Magic Hours. He has finished 1,300 pages of his travelogue and cultural history about the tombs of the 12 apostles. Entitled Bones That Shine Like Fire, it is, "I hope, a kind of return to form."
At the same time, he's preparing to leave Portland for an entirely new kind of writing: video-game scripts.
After teaching his last PSU course this fall, Bissell plans to move to California in the winter. He won't say the name of the video company or what exactly he's doing—he has signed nondisclosure agreements in "an industry notoriously adamant about keeping secrets.â
I asked Franzen, whose novels include last year's much-lauded Freedom, if he thought Bissell was wasting his gifts on The Room and video games.
"Because he is a true talent, I'll follow Tom wherever his interests take him," Franzen wrote in an email. "Some of the recent work he's done comes out of his need to make a living, and my worry is not that he's squandering his talent but, perhaps, that he's reining in some of the linguistic heedlessness and inventiveness that made his work so distinctive in the first place."
After Bissell finished his reading at the Woods, I told him what Franzen had said. He looked slightly wounded.
"The commercial contingencies of being a writer are cruel and unforgiving," he said. "Look, I'm still writing stuff that's more in line with the other stuff I've done, but I nearly went bankrupt writing that stuff. I was $20,000 in debt, and didn't have a place to live, and came back from an intercontinental extended vacation having fucked my life up trying to pursue that stuff alone."
Bissell then told a story that contained something grand and something silly, and took measure of himself.
"I happened to see Spider-Man 2 and Red in the same week," he began. "Alfred Molina played Mark Rothko in that play [Red] when it was on Broadway. He's amazing as Rothko. It's one of the most electrifying performances I've ever seen. He just filled the stage with force and vigor and intelligence. And then you see him do Doctor Octopus.â
His voice, which had been rushing excitedly ahead, hushed.
"I think Alfred Molina is a great actor, and I don't think he had any second thoughts about being Doctor Octopus. I think he tried to do Doctor Octopus in the most humane, interesting way he could. And I thought to myself, 'Shit, maybe my video-game stuff is my Doctor Octopus.' If I could be lucky enough to have a Doctor Octopus, I hope this is it.ââ
A Tom Bissell Reader
On Russian and Soviet efforts to occupy Uzbekistan, in Chasing the Sea, 2003:
"Russian involvement in Central Asia was rather akin to that of an irresponsible bankrupt maxing out a stack of credit cards in order to date women who do not love him and whom he cannot actually afford. Russia wanted to be a great power and could not pretend Great Power status without its captured khanates and miles of deserts and remote mosque-centered cities."
On calling his Marine father while stranded at the Afghan border, in The Father of All Things, 2007:
"'Have they hurt you?' In a moment I went from boyishly sniveling to nearly laughing. How could I tell him that the people of Afghanistan were extremely kind? That, at least in terms of safety, things actually could not have gone better? That I was not in any immediate danger at all? How could I then explain that I was so frightened I was nearly shaking? 'No one's hurt me, Dad. I'm just worried.' He asked, 'Are you speaking code? Tell me where you are.' His panic, preserved perfectly after its journey through cloud and space and the digital guts of some tiny metal moon, beamed down and hit me with all the force of an actual voice. 'Dad, I'm not a captive, I'm—' But he was gone. The line was silent, the satellite having glided into some nebula of link-terminating interference. I chose not to ponder the state in which my father would spend the remainder of his Christmas, though I later learned he spent it falling apart. And for a short while, at least, the unimaginable had become my life, not his. I was him, and he was me."
On the video game Resident Evil, in Extra Lives, 2010:
"Terrible dialogue? It was still a great game. A constant situational ridiculousness that makes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre seem like a restrained portrait of rural dysfunction? It was still a great game. And it is a great game, and will ever be thus. […] But the success of the first Resident Evil established the permissibility of a great game that happened to be stupid. This set the tone for half a decade of savagely unintelligent games and helped create an unnecessary hostility between the greatness of a game and the sophistication of things such as narrative, dialogue, dramatic motivation, and characterization. In accounting for this state of affairs, many game designers have, over the years, claimed that gamers do not much think about such highfaluting matters. This may or may not be largely true. But most gamers do not care because they have been trained by game designers not to care.â