Buck's Reviews > Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia

Chasing the Sea by Tom Bissell
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Sep 13, 09


Now that more and more writers in my age bracket are getting published, I’ve noticed something unsettling: reading their books is a bit like listening to my own voice on tape and has the same cringe-inducing effect. I realize every generation has its own jargon, its in-jokes and iPod playlists, but experiencing it from the inside is different. And demoralizing. It makes you appreciate how hard it is to rise above the idle chatter and say something halfway original.

At any rate, Chasing the Sea struck me as just the sort of book I might have written if I’d spent a few months bumming around Uzbekistan—and if I were, you know, a little brighter and more enterprising. As a person, Tom Bissell is probably nothing like me, but various little signs and shibboleths give away his age. He’s definitely one of us.

Take his sense of humour. I’m not sure how to categorize it exactly, but I know it when I hear it, if only because of the Pavlovian regularity with which it cracks me up. Much of the comedy in the book is provided by Rustam, the MILF-chasing Uzbek slacker who serves as Bissell’s interpreter. The exchanges between the two, full of comic misunderstandings and crude affection, have this loopy, laid-back, THC-infused quality:

“We need to go somewhere soon, bro, because my pee bubble is full.”
“Your pee bubble?”
“This is the bubble which holds my pee.”
“Your bladder, you mean. Bladder. B-l-a-d-d-e-r.”
“In English you don’t call it the pee bubble?”
“I will from now on, probably.”


And later:

“Ferghana is safe, bro. I don’t want you to worry.”
“I’m not worried.”
“The only thing you have to worry about is the Wahhabi rebels in the mountains. And then only during Rebel Season.”
“Rebel Season.”
“Yeah. When the snow melts. They move around.”
“When exactly is Rebel Season?”
“Well, I guess now.”



For me—and maybe only for me—the interesting thing about travel writing is that, while technically non-fiction, it’s hedged with as many codes and conventions as the novel. Among other challenges, the writer is faced with the delicate task of creating a narratorial voice, of constructing a persona. The trick is to be sympathetic without appearing to curry favour with the reader. The classic British travel writers—whom Bissell has obviously read with care—solved this problem in classic British fashion: through irony, understatement, self-depreciation. Bissell adopts an up-to-date, American version of this strategy, presenting himself as a bumbling but well-meaning doofus whose courage keeps deserting him at critical moments (thus, having agreed to smuggle some cash to the wife of an imprisoned Uzbek journalist, he gets so freaked out by the superintendent of the woman’s apartment building that he falls all over himself trying to run away—something it’s very hard to imagine Sir Wilfred Thesiger ever doing.)

Even if it is just a conventional pose, Bissell’s innocent-abroad routine seems very credible to me, mostly because I can relate all too well to his habit of losing his shit in spectacular ways. All the same, it’s kind of a sad commentary on 21st century manhood that we’ve gone from aristocratic sangfroid (“Being tortured by Papuan cannibals is rather a bore”) to our present state of gushy enfeeblement (Bissell has a recurring joke about how his decision to quit the Peace Corps back in the 90s was ‘emotional and complicated’—basically he missed his girlfriend and went crazy). What the fuck has happened to us?

Structurally, Chasing the Sea is—excuse the pun—a little choppy. Every time Bissell gets to a new town, he calls a halt to the narrative and piles on the scholarly in-fill, giving you a potted history of the place from medieval times to the present. And he can’t so much as glance at a minaret without writing two pages of expert commentary on its lovely neo-Byzantine ribbing or whatever. Unless you have a truly perverse passion for Central Asian history and architecture, you’re going to find all this expository stuffing very lumpy.

But read it anyway. Even if you’re not lucky enough to belong to my fabulous cohort—heck, even if you’re one of those insufferable baby boomers—you’re bound to get something out of it. It’s a sad, funny, (extremely) informative book. Just skim the minaret parts, is my advice.
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Comments (showing 1-18 of 18) (18 new)

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message 1: by Jim (new)

Jim Curious to hear your thoughts about this one...


Buck Well, I'm curious to know my own thoughts about this one, and I'm already halfway through. So the review could end up being a big waffle fest.


message 3: by Sparrow (last edited Sep 13, 2009 10:47AM) (new)

Sparrow Do you have thoughts about Jonathan Safran Foer? The slacker interpreter thing seems very Everything is Illuminated (though, admittedly, I've only seen the movie). But I guess that is the typical experience of being in a post-Soviet country.


Buck I can't offer an opinion on Foer since I haven't read him. But as a rule, making fun of foreigners' broken English is a cheap and lazy way to get a laugh, don't you think? Especially when most English speakers can't be bothered to learn a second language. To his credit, Bissell doesn't go to this well very often. 'Pee bubble' was just too good to pass up, though.


message 5: by Sparrow (new)

Sparrow Yes, as a rule I completely agree and even find it off-putting. I think this is kind of a different category, though, where a non-native speaker comes up with phrasing that is better than the typical phrasing. I think of it less as making fun than as recognizing awesomeness. In the movie Everything is Illuminated it is maybe even a different category of just very skillfully documenting the way some people do talk. The Ukrainian kid is absolutely uncanny in that story.


Buck This afternoon I was starting to wonder what the hell I was going on about with all that generation crap. Then I happened to pick up the Borges book a friend was reading and flip it open it to this sentence: 'Perhaps our contemporaries - always - seem too much like us, and if we are looking for new things we shall find them more easily in the ancients.'

Ha! Take that, mofos! Okay, true, nobody'd said a word about it, but still - it's nice to know Jorge's got my back.

But returning to your point, Meredith: your comments made me think of Lost in Translation, where there was something crass and xenophobic about the treatment of Japanese culture, I felt. On the other hand, Scarlett Johanssen was super hot in that film, so it's okay.

And that leads me back to Chasing the Sea. Bissell is quite hard on a couple of more famous writers (Robert Kaplan and A.A. Gill) who strolled into Uzbekistan and saw nothing but chaos and backwardness. He pretty much wipes the floor with them, actually. And good for him. Isn't the very definition of 'tourist' someone who fetishizes superficial differences?


message 7: by Rose (new)

Rose Gowen No, I think you're right about reading one's contemporaries-- it's embarrassing, and it can lead to gross envy if the writer is any good, and contempt all out of proportion if s/he is not (not that I am ever so petty about the writers of my generation, of course!).

When they write about/ think about things too far away from what we ourselves think about they seem weird and out of touch, but when they share our preoccupations, they make our own thoughts seem banal and predictable.

Damn them!

This is why it's better to stick with the old and/or dead.


message 8: by Sparrow (new)

Sparrow I read your comment a while ago, Buck, but I couldn't respond right away because I had to reconcile myself to sounding gay and saying that everything you said is absolutely correct. I guess I'll come back to the hetero side of life, though, and say that Scarlett Johanssen being super hot in Lost in Translation kind of made how not hot Bill Murray is worse. Also, I hate the "young, hot girl falls madly in love with ugly old man" plot line. I'm instantly annoyed (except, for some reason, in Manhattan and Memories of My Melancholy Whores). Scarlett Johanssen is awesome, though. But it is so true about the Japanese culture thing. And it never makes it better to me with Sophia Coppola that you could argue she's self-aware and artistic about it. It's like hedging her bets that she tries to throw some avant garde stuff into her films, so if anyone has anything critical to say, she can just call it irony.

I had never thought about the definition of "tourist" before, but I think you are right about that, too, obviously. And, even though I'd vote just out of respect for ping pong, of course, the writers-of-a-certain-age point was what got my vote. I think it's very true.

Also, I forgot to say before, I think Foer is worth reading.


Buck Rose! I thought we'd lost you to Rochester and "suburban housewifery". For once, you, Borges and I are all in accord: the dead are a safer bet than the living.

For obvious reasons, Meredith, I prefer to believe that a beautiful young woman could fall madly in love with an unattractive older man solely on the basis of his wit and charm. It could happen, right? Right? Or does the man have to be a movie star for that to work?




message 10: by Sparrow (new)

Sparrow Sure . . .


message 11: by Rose (new)

Rose Gowen Oh, we have lost me to housewifery. I haven't read a book in months. I spend all my spare moments absorbed in domestic projects. Plus, Jessica was saying something a while ago about how she didn't know how people who don't commute on the train get any reading done-- I am finding this to be a real problem, now that I'm driving everywhere (see "suburban"). Soon, though, I hope to have sewed all the curtains I want to sew, etc., and will show up for more than the odd burble.


message 12: by Jim (last edited Sep 14, 2009 12:08PM) (new)

Jim Funny, I thought "someone who fetishizes superficial differences" was the definition for "writer." Or maybe that's "horse racing handicapper." I get them confused.




message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

You know what's even worse then reading novels by one's contemporaries? Reading novels by one's contemporaries that you knew before they became published authors, but you kind of thought they were neurotics & they were no fun at parties & now that's the only thing you think when you read their stuff. Not that I have any experience with this.


message 14: by David (new)

David Well, I was going to comment that young Buckminster's review got my vote, if only for its correct usage of 'self-depreciation' (and its many other virtues too, natch). Then I remembered the last time I made a public comment about correct usage on the interwebs and made a complete idiot of myself, so I decided to check out the whole 'self-deprecation'/'self-depreciation' debacle, just to be sure.

The predictable result? Total confusion and another half-hour frittered away on the internet. Damn!

But it is a fine review.


message 15: by Buck (new) - rated it 3 stars

Buck I vacillated between ‘depreciation’ and ‘deprecation’ for a few agonizing minutes. ‘Do I go with my plebeian gut or listen to my upwardly-mobile brain?’ It’s so hard to know these days. Then I stuffed my lower middle class mouth with Twinkies.


message 16: by Buck (new) - rated it 3 stars

Buck Jim wrote: "Funny, I thought "someone who fetishizes superficial differences" was the definition for "writer." Or maybe that's "horse racing handicapper." I get them confused."

Not to mention philanderers, wine connoisseurs and dog-show judges. We're all tourists in one way or another.




message 17: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell I just want to say I'm in love with this whole thread. Particularly the pee bubble.


message 18: by David (new)

David Buck's use of the controversial Twinkie defence may also be a first for goodreads.


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