Ian Frazier is one of the few true stylists in nonfiction writing today. Along with Susan Orlean and not many others (would that David Foster Wallace were still around), he writes in a fashion that is recognizably and unmistakably his own. Much of his writing consists of short humor pieces, mostly for The New Yorker, often built around a conceit of oddball juxtapositions. In the title essay of Lamentations of the Father, for example, a dad delivers a series of warnings and homilies to his young children in the portentous syntax of the Old Testament. (“Of the beasts of the field, and of the fishes of the sea, and of all foods that are acceptable in my sight you may eat, but not in the living room.”)
Frazier is probably known best, however, for books such as Great Plains, Family, and On the Rez, which take him out of New York and into history and wide open spaces. In these works, the first-person narrator comes and goes, generally mild and self-effacing: there is no risk of authorial bravado in a Frazier book.
His first such production in a long time, Travels in Siberia is also the most ambitious, in terms of the time it took (Frazier began researching his book in 1993) and the sweep of his subject. Siberia is 6,000 miles across and spans eight time zones, making up three-quarters of Russia and one-twelfth of the land on earth. It has a long human history, which Frazier also wants to explore. The 544-page book is the result of several trips; the arduous seven-week summertime drive across Siberia, which is its centerpiece, was completed, as circumstance would have it, on September 11, 2001. Frazier’s final trip, a short visit to Novosibirsk, was made last fall.
Frazier begins with a convincing account of how he was “infected with a love of Russia” in middle age. A lecture in New York by two Soviet dissident artists, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, led to a New Yorker piece about them. The ensuing friendship with Melamid resulted in a trip to Siberia and immersion in the artist’s circle, with Frazier firmly ensconced behind a linguistic barrier: “[A]ll the conversation was in Russian, and I became a cat or a dog, understanding nothing except once in a while my own name.” Just the same, he leaves exultant: “Moscow was the greatest place I’d ever been, and Russia the greatest country I’d ever seen.”
Frazier begins a study of Russian, taking lessons first in the émigré community of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and later in St. Petersburg. He reads deeply in Russian history and literature, paying special mind to Pushkin. There is a dignity and gravitas he appreciates in Russia, and he is enchanted even by its characteristic smell, whose components he identifies as diesel fuel, tea bags, cucumber peels, wet cement, sour milk, chilly air, and currant jam. By contrast, he says, America smells like the Cinnabon franchise in the airport in Anchorage. Frazier concludes, “The smell of America says, ‘Come in and buy.’ The smell of Russia says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen: Russia!’ ”