Without a hint of self-indulgence, Biss is repeatedly able to use her own experience to make astonishing assertions. In "No Man's Land," she tells us that the children of Rogers Park who frequently ask her for money are, in fact, levying "a kind of tax on my presence here. A tax that, although I resent it, is more than fair." In this sense, Notes From No Man's Land is, as Biss writes, a book about absolution. But these forceful, beautiful essays don't simply want us to move on. They want us to move forward together.
By sneaking up, crabwise, to her explosive subjects, Biss avoids sounding academic or polemical. This is particularly evident in "Is This Kansas," which compares the treatment of Katrina victims to that of her former Iowa City frat-boy neighbors in the wake of a tornado that decimated Iowa City. In "Letter to Mexico," Biss looks at the reverse-NAFTA tide of American expatriates living it up in Mexico City.
But it’s not just these momentary changes he makes eloquent. Biss always keeps his eye on the long perspective. In Janacek’s suite In the Mists, the last movement’s opening phrase returns again at the end, and Biss revealed all the emotional freight it had acquired in between.