Chasing the lost sea
by Keith Taylor
In 2001 Tom Bissell, who describes himself as an "adventure journalist," was sent to Uzbekistan by Harper's to cover what has been described as the "greatest environmental disaster in the world": the disappearance of the Aral Sea. The book that grew out of that trip, Chasing the Sea: Lost among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, is one of the best American travel narratives since the early work of Peter Matthiessen.
Bissell, who grew up in Escanaba and is not yet thirty, is one of a group of hot young writers who have been evolving a new prose style. On the surface this style evinces an ironic detachment that is often very funny. It also abounds in pop references to everything from music to brand names that can easily confuse readers even just a little older who haven't kept up. This popular referentiality is often combined with the grammar and diction of high culture. But beneath all these flourishes and the real explanation for this new style's success is a genuine moral sensibility that usually lies outside any of the familiar political categories.
All of this comes together in Chasing the Sea to make a book that is very much in its own category. Bissell includes a lot of history, finding good stories everywhere from before the invasions of Genghis Khan to after the fall of Gorbachev. There is a good deal about Islam in central Asia, and Bissell is very good about differentiating Turkish and Arabic influences. He re-creates several of the interesting characters he encountered in his travels, particularly Rustam, his translator and friend, who comfortably throws around "dude" and "bro" while explaining Uzbeki customs.
And then there is the constant, offstage presence of the Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest lake in the world larger than Lake Huron and the home of the most successful fishing fleet in the early Soviet Union. After a century of being
diverted to water cotton crops forced to grow in the desert of central Asia, the Aral is only a third of its original size. All of its fish are dead. Sandstorms are more than five times as common, devastating the health of the people who live in the region. Two-thirds of that population suffers from chronic or fatal illness. Chasing the Sea builds to an unforgettable surreal moment near the end where Bissell wanders through sand dunes littered with the hulls of a fishing fleet, abandoned now more than eighty miles from the disappearing sea they once sailed.
Tom Bissell discusses his book at the U-M International Institute on Tuesday, January 27.
[Originally published in January, 2004.]