Creative Types and Other Stories
Pantheon, 224 pages, $24
The Hack, one of seven short stories in journalist and fiction writer Tom Bissell’s latest offering, Creative Types and Other Stories, succinctly articulates the raison d’être of its collection: “Talented people needed more space, psychically speaking. You can’t crowd them or demand things from them, because they were always working inside their heads, even if it didn’t seem like they were.”
Bissell, whose short-story collection God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories (2005) was awarded a Pushcart Prize and served as the source for two films, believes that writers, artists, actors, musicians, etc., see the world through a different prism than their more prosaic fellow travelers. And while this heightened sensitivity may spark the ideation of a chef-d’oeuvre, it also tests, torments, and throttles those who feel its gravitational pull.
The idea that creative people vacillate between brilliance and madness and are often beset by substance abuse problems is hardly revolutionary. Yet, the Escanaba, Michigan, native, whose diverse body of work includes articles, essays, novels, short stories, screenplays, travelogs, and video game scripts, delivers a compelling, tightly written anthology to showcase the contemporary tormented artistic soul. While the selected stories have a thematic coherency, their plot structures and character backstories are radically different.
Bissell is a marvelous storyteller with a command of language and a mastery of dialogue. His characters are largely unsympathetic, but he paints them with a brush of empathy, which explains but does not excuse their shortcomings. Every tale has an unexpected ending brought about by uncharacteristic behavior.
“Punishment,” which depicts the Manhattan-based reunion of two Flat Rock, Michigan, elementary school bullies, is my personal favorite. While Mark, the assistant to the editor-in-chief of a struggling New York–based literary magazine, is still relying on his parents to pay his rent, Steve has a thriving career as a chemical engineer in Houston. Bissell juxtaposes Mark, a medium-sized man with a subdued manner and a passion for literature and the arts, against Steve, who casts a physically imposing shadow, punctuates his language with derogatory barbs, and hasn’t read an actual book since high school.
Mark, Steve, and his girlfriend Danielle embark on an odyssey of Manhattan navigating Times Square, Union Square, and the Upper East Side, ultimately arriving at the Metropolitan Museum’s Temple of Dendur, where the shocking climax takes place. Bissell so skillfully deploys dialogue that he tricks the reader into believing that his characters possess emotional and psychological traits that their actions belie. Mark and Steve were impacted differently by their mutual brutal physical treatment of their elementary school classmate Travis. The author ultimately reveals their dissimilar coping mechanisms and outcomes in a way that leads the reader to completely revisit his or her interpretation of the story.
“The Fifth Category” is a nightmarish fantasy loosely inspired by John Yoo, the legal scholar and George W. Bush–era deputy assistant attorney general responsible for drafting the so-called “torture memo.” Yoo and Special Counsel Robert Delahunty concluded that since the Taliban was not a government, the treatment of the detainees was not subject to the War Crimes Act, the Geneva Convention, or the Hague Convention, effectively providing the legal justification for the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques. Bissell weaves a fictional backstory in which the attorney, who is also named John, awakens on an empty plane bound for the U.S. from Tallinn, Estonia, following his poorly received participation in a conference.
“The Fifth Category,” named for the highest level of torture, is Bissell’s most controversial and chilling contribution. His fusion of violent fantasy and pedestrian verisimilitude simultaneously repels and engages. In reading “The Fifth Category,” I questioned why Bissell would classify an attorney, albeit a published author, under the rubric of the creative type. Perhaps he intended to show that all writers are word wizards with the power to influence and create precedent.
“The Hack” is a short story detailing the behind-the-scenes dynamics for a December 2014 Saturday Night Live skit spoofing the data hacking of Sony reportedly carried out by the hacker group the Guardians of Peace. This colossal data breach, which publicly released sensitive corporate and employee data, including celebrity passports and Social Security numbers, was allegedly sponsored by the North Korean government as retribution for the studio’s pending release of The Interview, a 2014 film starring James Franco and Seth Rogen as journalists who become embroiled in a plot to assassinate North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. North Korea has repeatedly denied any involvement in the hacking.
In Bissell’s story, frequent writing partners Franco and Rogen are frustrated because Sony has expressly told them that they are not to include any hack jokes in their SNL skits. They decide to push the envelope by integrating a reference to the hack with the joke directed at themselves instead of Sony. Franco asks his assistant Daniel to coordinate obtaining the necessary approvals from Sony. Daniel not only fails to obtain the sign-offs but also fails to notify Franco. The unapproved monologue airs, and disaster ensues.
It is apparent that Daniel, who spends each day meticulously managing Franco’s life, including standing over him to make sure that he ingests his tuna fish sandwich before it becomes soggy, deliberately dropped the ball with Sony. With this anecdote, Bissell further buttresses his argument that creative types require both special armor and understanding. They are always watching their backs, and as their fame increases so does their vulnerability to sabotage.
Creative Types is an engaging collection of short stories inspired by Bissell’s diverse portfolio of writing experience, meticulous research, and boundless imagination. These beautifully written, painful stories remind us of the creative and practical challenges of pouring artistic passion into a durable vessel.