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God Lives in St Petersburg

Tom Bissell

In one of the palace's uninhabited corners he found a splendid globe as large as an underwater mine, all of its countries' names in Cyrillic. Central Asia was turned out toward the room; North America faced the wall. Seeing the planet displayed from that strange side had seemed to Donk as mistaken as an upside-down letter. But it was not wrong. The globe was in fact perfectly accurate."

Reviewed by Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson

Bissell's stories may be linked by Central Asian settings but a disparate range of styles and voices ensures that each one feels fresh and distinct. Stylistically The 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. 

Despite 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. 

It 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.” 

For 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. 

Reservations 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 unsettling.

Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson 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. 

Elizabeth's other Short Reviews: Andrzej Stasiuk "Tales of Galicia"   

Michael Chabon (ed) "McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories"

Sylvia Petter "Back Burning"

"Best American Short Stories 2007"



Publication Date: 2005

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Author bio: Tom 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.

Read an interview with Tom Bissell

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