An intriguing, varied collection of short fiction
A young and ingratiating assistant to a movie star makes a blunder that puts his boss and a major studio at grave risk. A long-married couple hires an escort for a threesome in order to rejuvenate their relationship. An assistant at a prestigious literary journal reconnects with a middle school frenemy and finds that his carefully constructed world of refinement cannot protect him from his past. A Bush administration lawyer wakes up on an abandoned airplane, trapped in a nightmare of his own making.
In these and other stories, Tom Bissell vividly renders the complex worlds of characters on the brink of artistic and personal crises — writers, video-game developers, actors, and other creative types who see things slightly differently from the rest of us. With its surreal, poignant, and sometimes squirm-inducing stories, Creative Types is a brilliant new offering from one the most versatile and talented writers working in America today.
I’d only read Bissell’s non-fiction before I gave Creative Types and Other Stories a try — specifically, The Disaster Artist and Magic Hours. With hindsight, the latter should have given me an idea of what to expect from this very good collection of stories (there’s some subject overlap). Each story is a snapshot in a character’s life, as they are forced to confront their current situations and question what they want, and even who they are.
I won’t walk through each story in the collection. There are some notable stand-outs for me, though. To get this out of the way: yes, many of the characters in this collection are writers. It’s not an original observation to note that many writers write about writers — often because that’s what they know (this is true for young writers and old). It’s even something Bissell touches upon, in “Love Story, With Cocaine” (an intriguing, weird story about two people brought together by boredom and a fondness for the white stuff):
He misunderstood her confusion as an invitation to explain. “I want to write about interesting people, but the only things I ever write are about writers. When I read books or stories about writers it makes me crazy. It’s like: Again, dude? Seriously? But at a certain point, as a writer, you forget about what having a job and going to work actually feels like. And so you start imagining someone who has no responsibility to anyone but himself. To avoid making him a writer you start coming up with the weirdest imaginable jobs. Which is no better than writing about writers.”
In “My Interview with the Avenger”, a skeptical journalist lands an interview with a vigilante who’s been operating in New York for a few years — swooping in to defend victims of muggings and other crimes. The reporter, Tim Jonah, is not a fan of the Avenger, has criticized him in earlier features, so everyone’s quite surprised when he is approached for an interview. When they meet, however, the Avenger manages to turn the tables on his interviewer, forcing Jonah to examine his own motivations and failure to follow his dreams as a writer. The story didn’t do what I was expecting, but Bissell does a great job of writing about a character being put on the back foot.
“Punishment” tells the story of New York-based assistant at a prestigious literary journal. (In my mind, I pictured the Lapham Quarterly, which was next door to The Nation when I worked there.) It’s an interesting story about old, lapsed friendship. The protagonist, Mark, is hosting his friend from school for the weekend, who is flying in from Houston. While we wait to meet Steve, Mark reminisces about this friendship, and we learn about how shitty they were as kids. It seems like Mark just went along with Steve’s frankly sociopathic and possible psychopathic pranks. At least Mark is experiencing remorse for his past thuggery, but we quickly learn that Steve has no regrets — now he’s a ‘roided-out gym rat, utterly uninterested in anything beyond his own gratification. It’s an interesting look at interpersonal dynamics, and the ways in which we hold on to past friendships/connections even if they are unhealthy.
One of the most interesting stories, for me, was “The Fifth Category”. The protagonist, “John”, is clearly meant to be John Yoo — George W. Bush’s “torture lawyer”, who wrote the legal finding that would ultimately legalize(ish) “enhanced interrogation techniques” for America’s war against terrorism. He’s on his way home after a conference in Estonia, even though he’s been advised to not travel outside of the United States (there are quite a few countries who have called for his arrest for war crimes). Alternating between his experiences at the conference, and some strange goings-on aboard his flight, it’s a very good, quietly searing indictment of Bush-era policies and the cavalier arrogance of those who enable the administration’s worst policies and actions.
The collection is filled with interesting observations about the characters, people in general, writing (of course), memory, and more. It doesn’t necessarily break the mould, but Bissell is a very good writer. To me, I could see his experience with and talents for journalism coming through: his prose is sparse but evocative, and he does a lot with a little. I could be wrong, but it doesn’t feel like he agonized over crafting “the perfect sentence” — instead, his style is clear, very much like the best journalistic writing. Often I feel impatient with short story collections, or have no difficulty reading one story every now and then. But, with Creative Types, I happily read it through from start to finish.
Very much recommended. I really enjoyed this.
Tom Bissell’s Creative Types and Other Stories is due to be published by Pantheon Books on March 23rd, 2021.
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Review copy received via NetGalley