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‘Magic Hours’ explores creation, creators

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‘Magic Hours’ explores creation, creators (Author photo courtesy Joanne Degeneres)

As the constant churn of content generation becomes more and more a part of the creative landscape, the value of cultural criticism expands exponentially. Consuming art is important, but understanding the consequences of that consumption is vital as well.

Tom Bissell is one such cultural critic. His collection “Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation” (Vintage, $16.95) features essays whose subject matter runs the gamut from highbrow to lowbrow and back again, all delivered with a combination of insight and wit that provokes thought with a concise cleverness.

Throughout these 18 pieces, Bissell addresses artistic questions large and small. He rails against the artificial and embraces the genuine. He is very clear about what he likes … and VERY clear about what he does not. He’s not about pulling punches, but nor is he stingy with his praise. When it comes to art, love it or hate it, Tom Bissell is passionate about it.

The first piece in the collection, an essay titled “Unflowered Aloes,” is also the first chronologically in terms of when it was written. There’s a feeling of a voice being honed (an expression/notion which Bissell himself would likely loathe), but the fire is already there. The notion of how critical response can impact a work – even a transcendent one – is explored by way of the early failures of such canon fodder as “Moby Dick” and “Leaves of Grass.”

The last piece – called “Everything about Everything” – served as the foreword to the 20th-anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.” It’s a sharp, incisive breakdown of just how that seminal novel manages to be so thoroughly of its time yet somehow existing outside of it. It’s the first internet novel. It’s about language - or is it about character? Or both? It’s the novel of its generation. All of it through the perspective of someone ideally placed in time and space to experience one of the greatest novels of the 20th century’s latter half. Can you tell I love “Infinite Jest” with deep-down fire?

(Another brief piece – “Great and Terrible Truths” – also deals with Wallace; specifically, his now-legendary 2005 Kenyon College commencement address and its subsequent publication as “This is Water.”)

And in between, we get essays exploring all manner of creative cultural nooks and crannies. Bissell’s particularly fun when he breaks bad on the literary world. For instance, there’s a wonderful piece (“Writing about Writing about Writing”) that essentially eviscerates the entire subgenre of books about how to write books. Not all of them – he actually has some kind words for Stephen King’s “On Writing,” for instance – but most of them. It’s a gleeful takedown that is great fun to read.

In another, he takes the literary movement known as the Underground Literary Alliance to task for their blunt force protestations against a publishing world that they don’t deign to understand in “Grief and the Outsider.” In “Still Rising,” he gives us a quick hit paean to the impact of “The Sun Also Rises.”

It’s not all literary, however. In the excellent “Escanaba’s Magic Hour,” Bissell returns to his childhood home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to observe the filming of the movie version of the Jeff Daniels play “Escanaba in da Moonlight.” It’s a lovely look at what it means for a small town to be both a part of and removed from a story about which it is ostensibly the subject. Bissell’s ability to straddle the line allows for a thoughtful and well-observed look at the separation.

(It didn’t hurt that I read it a scant two weeks after finishing a run in a stage production of “Escanaba in da Moonlight.” Synchronicity at its finest.)

The cinematic essays abound. “Rules of Engagement” explores the murkiness involved in documentaries about the Iraq War. “The Secret Mainstream” looks at the work of Werner Herzog; “Cinema Crudité” deconstructs the phenomenon that is Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room.”

“Magic Hours” is a reissue, having first appeared in 2012 (there are some new offerings). Ordinarily, I don’t review reissues, but this one spoke to me. As something of a cultural critic myself, there’s something rewarding about experiencing someone who’s among the best of the best. Tom Bissell easily and compellingly explores the condition of the culture through its creations. The hours you spend with “Magic Hours” will be magic indeed.

Last modified on Tuesday, 27 March 2018 15:22


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