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!’ ”
After this, he visits Nome, Alaska, which he describes in some wonderful passages, but which is not Siberia. There are also brief trips to the Chukchi Peninsula, right across the Bering Strait from Alaska, and the nearby Diomede Islands—but these places, too, have a fairly tenuous connection to the essential, Russian-flavored Siberia. Many pages are spent on the history of Genghis Khan and the Mongols, with the narrator hardly present, and on earlier accounts of travels in Siberia by other writers, of which there are many. Frazier focuses on one such chronicle by an Ohio telegraph operator named George Frost Kennan (after his distant relative, George Kennan, the twentieth-century diplomat and Russia expert). The untutored Kennan had some interesting travels and wrote a good book. But by the time Frazier, who was born in Cleveland and grew up in Hudson, Ohio, gets around to noting the many other Ohio-Siberia historical connections (“That’s five people from Ohio visiting and writing about Siberia in the space of fifteen years, or an average of one Ohioan every three years,”), the conceit has worn a bit thin. We want to hit the road!
We finally do on page 178. In St. Petersburg, on an earlier visit, Frazier has introduced himself to officials at the Museum of the Arctic and the Antarctic, and asked for their advice on how to drive across Siberia. They hook him up with a guide, Sergei, who brings along an assistant, Volodya—“tough and competent-looking” men who belong to a nationwide emergency rescue organization called the Ministry of Extraordinary Situations.