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1 september 2022
"I want to write about interesting people," says a writer in Tom Bissell's Creative Types, "but the only things I ever write about are writers" (101). The stories in the volume are not brand-new, having first appeared between 2008 and 2016, most of them early in that span. One senses that their author saved them up till he had enough writings about writers for a complete set.
Reviews of Creative Types suggested that the collection would be full of bad behavior. I was led to Bissell's book by one of his similar stories in the Spring 2022 issue of ZYZZYVA: "His Finest Moment." There, a prominent writer responds petulantly to unraveling revelations about his predatory sexual behavior: compounding bad behavior with worse.
It's a strong story despite being based on the principle of cringe, and so is the opening entry in Creative Types, "A Bridge under Water." Here, we see bad male behavior from the perspective of a writer's wife. She is pregnant, they are on their honeymoon in Rome, he (a Gentile) drags her to churches even though she is both Jewish and bored. When he hits on the idea of taking her to a synagogue instead, his bad behavior really kicks in.
"Punishment" reunites a feckless assistant book-review editor with a tech-rich grade-school friend; the two used to bully kids mercilessly, years before. The editor has outgrown his testosterone poisoning but the friend, if anything, has piled on more belligerence. It's a tense situation, though overlain with some facile contrasts between New York and Texas (no points for guessing where the respective characters have gravitated). "Punishment" ultimately doesn't know where to take its situation and ends in a minor psychological explosion, not as convincing as the one that ends "His Finest Moment."
"My Interview with the Avenger," which previously appeared not just in The Virginia Quarterly Review but also in collections of both superhero and crime stories, is told by a writer who gets a unique chance to meet a shadowy vigilante. He doesn't learn much from the encounter, except that the Avenger is in some ways his doppelganger – as much interested in why he became a writer as the writer is in why he became a crimefighter out of comic-book cliché.
Two stories in Creative Types – "Love Story, with Cocaine" and "The Fifth Category" – make use of Estonia as a setting. The first really is a love story, though gruesomely outlandish; the latter is a horror story whose victim is as far as you can get from innocent. Both male protagonists are writers of a sort, or writers manqu&eavute;s. So is the male apex of the triangle in the title story, "Creative Types"; he and his wife hire an escort to liven their sexual relationship, but the results are far from erotic.
The weakest story in the book is the last, "The Hack," a deliberately overwrought piece about a star's personal assistant who gets to work for a week on Saturday Night Live: it may make more sense to industry insiders, but that's not a good basis for general fiction.
Bissell, Tom. Creative Types and other stories. New York: Pantheon [Penguin Random House], 2021. PS 3602 .I78A6