'Siberia' author explores coarse language in latest work
He made a trip across Siberia, one of the most remote and mysterious areas of the planet, and found equal amounts humor, humanity and pathos. His most recent book gives voice to a woman who makes the use of profanities an art form.
Yes, Ian Frazier is one of the wittiest writers working today.
But he admits he has doubts about what resonates with readers.
“I only know what's funny later, if people laugh at it,” says Frazier, who will appear Oct. 21 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures. “It can seem funny to me, but that's sort of theoretical. Every now and then, I write something I do think is funny, but even then, you can't really tell.”
In the tradition of Mark Twain, Frazier, a writer and humorist for The New Yorker, is adept at fiction and nonfiction. His latest book, “The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days” (Picador), is the diary of a contemporary woman prone to profane outbursts. Married and the mother of two young boys, she releases her frustration in outbursts that echo Lenny Bruce by way of Richard Pryor.
Frazier thinks the narrator is a reflection of new attitudes about what is acceptable in public discourse.
“It's kind of a historic change,” he says. “If you go back, and not that far, people really didn't curse. Moms didn't curse — my mother didn't. ... People, in general, curse more than they used to, and I don't necessarily think it's good.”
The novel's coarse language presents problems. Frazier admits he isn't comfortable reading certain passages, although during an appearance on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” the swear words were bleeped out, to comic effect.
So why write a character spewing the same words that make him uncomfortable? Frazier contends his character is redeemed by her conscience.
“I think the Cursing Mommy does feel that she shouldn't do it — ‘Excuse me, I've lost control,'” he says, noting that so much contemporary discourse is appreciably worse than his character's language. “She's, in a way, naive and doesn't know how bad it can be. She thinks what she's saying is terrible because she's saying these three of four rather conventional swear words. Language, I think, has gotten much grosser and cruder.”
It can be argued that Frazier excels most at travel writing. His 1989 book, “Great Plains,” took readers on a journey through the heartland of the United States. “On the Rez” (2000) is a study of life in America for contemporary Native Americans.
Frazier's masterwork may be “Travels in Siberia” (Picador). Published in 2010, the book is part travelogue, part history primer, part comic adventure and part quest. Frazier undertook his Siberian journey — spanning three-fourths of Russia, one-twelfth of the Earth's land mass, and eight time zones — in 2001. A dozen years later, the experience still marks him.
“I just feel weirdly connected to this place,” Frazier says. “There are a few places I've written about that are like that; the Great Plains are another, where this is sort of like a relative you keep tabs on.”
Frazier hired guides and drove across Siberia in a Renault step van that seemed to break down every 100 kilometers. He bathed in rivers and lakes, slept on the ground in forests and was ravaged by swarms of mosquitoes. He witnessed weddings that took place in the middle of heavily traveled roads, his party being unable to pass until they paid tribute to the new couple. And sometimes, Frazier and his guides faced dead ends because the road they were on simply ended.
But everywhere Frazier went, he found something of interest: a nugget or a tidbit that amazed him and became a story worth telling.
“Siberia is an amazing place, and all kinds of important things happened there and continue to happen there,” he says. “It becomes kind of a cliche, of snow and gulags. That's what people think, and there's so much more to it. You just want to give the place its due, maybe, and increase people's understanding.”
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