by Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson
stories may be linked by Central Asian settings but a disparate range
of styles and voices ensures that each one feels fresh and distinct.
Ambassador's Son, a blackly comic tale of mafia
underworlds and mistaken identity narrated by the precociously jaded
Alec, is miles away from the religious and sexual despair of Timothy,
the protagonist in God
Lives in St Petersburg. Yet while the values and
experiences of these two characters are poles apart, there is no doubt
that they are part of the same crumbling post-Soviet ruin, a place
largely neglected by the rest of the world.
the emphasis on setting, Bissell seemed to me to avoid the trap of
relying on an exotic alien setting just for effect. The core of Expensive Trips Nowhere
– a man gently pushes his wife into the line of fire when a gun is
pointed at him – could have taken place anywhere from Kabul to New
York. But the unfamiliar landscape of the Kazakhstani steppe, “the
world's empty center”, helps to create a relentless sense of
strangeness that further exposes the characters' alienation from one
another and themselves.
does sometimes feel that Bissell only ever gives his readers the view
of the American abroad. While this is varied and various enough to
provided plenty of material, there is a sense of holding back. Only
rarely do we catch a glimpse of a native view on Central Asia, more
usually we see various American characters' interpretation of what the
native view might be. This might be a writer's unwillingness to engage
more deeply with the subject, or perhaps it is just a recognition and
respect of the limits of what an outsider can ever understand.
Certainly it leaves plenty of room for insights: “Just as there is no
Russian word that connotes the full meaning of privacy, there is no
unambiguously pejorative word for cheat” notes one character, while
another observes: “I'll give you guys credit for having gargantuan
balls ... For trying to convert a bunch of Muslims to Christianity when
they're not even interested in being Muslims.”
me, the weakest story was the book's opener Death Defier, the
only one in the collection written post-2001. Set in Afghanistan, it
weighs in at a whopping 57 pages and seemed, to this reader, to be
trying to do everything at once: cramming in the life story of Donk – a
war reporter whose only escape from death is to photograph atrocities –
together with a portrait of battle-scarred Afghanistan – where US
soldiers scout bombsites on horseback and do deals with Afghan warlords
– overlaid with a ticking-clock plot involving Donk's dying colleague.
I couldn't help wondering if this story's main function wasn't to help
make relevant and sell a collection of short stories about Central Asia
by highlighting their relevance to the enquiring mind of an enlightened
post 9/11 reader. But perhaps that is simply my own cynicism.
aside, I finished the collection feeling I'd benefited from a new
perspective: perhaps not the definitive one and perhaps not the one
that Central Asia would give to itself. But it still felt fresh and
lives in London, where she is trying to find a balance between
finishing The Novel, motherhood and having a life. Her short fiction
has appeared in Mslexia, LITRO, The New Writer and www.pulp.net.
Bissell is a New York-based writer and former teacher of
English in Uzbekistan. As well as contributing to various journals and
magazines, he is author of Chasing
the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, Speak,
Commentary (with Jeff Alexander) and The Father of All Things: A
Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam.
with Tom Bissell
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