To Be a Person: Barrett Swanson and Jordan Kisner in Conversation

The Lost in Summerland Author and Thin Places Author Consider the Myriad Methods of Narrative Structure

Barrett and I hadn’t met before this exchange but his was a name and sensibility I knew already: I’d encountered the title essay of his collection, Lost in Summerland, when it was first published, and had been taken with its emotional ferocity, its humor, and its willingness to risk curiosity in the face of a subject that would have been easy to dismiss or ridicule. Those are the same qualities that make me admire the collection we had a chance to discuss here.

Our conversation took place via sporadic emailing throughout the spring, as the constricted conditions we’ve all been inhabiting began (at least in parts of the United States) to slowly loosen, and as the question of a possible “end” or “after” to the pandemic began rising. Maybe because of that—and certainly because of Barrett’s tendencies and fascinations as a writer—we wound up talking about the impulse to reach for existential or moral coherence through narrative, and the temptations and pitfalls of that practice. What makes a “good” or “bad” story? What are the “bad” stories in which we are, individually and as a society, entangled? What are the possibilities of dwelling—as Barrett does in Lost in Summerland—in the problem of narrative breakdown?

–Jordan Kisner

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Jordan Kisner: You write in the final essay of your collection, Lost in Summerland, that “in some sense, the history of American belle letters was built upon the genre of spiritual quests,” as you consider your own attraction to questing after some kind of spiritual answer or satisfaction. How did that narrative structure—the (American) spiritual quest—factor into the way you conceived of and structured this book?

Barrett Swanson: I would love to say that the book’s thematic scaffolding was entirely an artistic decision. Closer to the truth is that at several critical junctures across the last two decades I have been almost lethally depressed and have begun to think about this headspace not simply as the aftereffect of a genetic misfortune but as the inexorable consequence of living within certain cultural conditions, of laboring under a warped definition of what it means to be a person.

Soon I started seeing hallmarks of a similar sadness in the faces of my friends—a certain restive, forlorn quality in the way that our dinner parties were almost exclusively given over to discussions about prestige television or in the way that my students talked about “self-branding” on LinkedIn and social media. And so as more and more Americans were abandoning traditional religions and political commitments, I found myself curious about the assortment of surrogate beliefs and ideologies that many of us were embracing as lodestars for daily living. It seemed like we were engaged in a spiritual quest, bloodhounding around for a narrative structure upon which we could lay our experiences and find some totalizing meaning.

Possibly this will sound dramatic, but I’m going to see what happens by telling the truth. When I started writing nonfiction as a 26-year-old person, this curiosity was more than anthropological because I was coming to the end of my rope. I was looking for reasons to stay alive. And as I started writing more and more of the essays, I began to see that every subculture I was visiting—antiwar veterans, socialist utopians, CrossFit disciples, astrology buffs, spiritualist communities, etc.—was furnishing a certain narrative template about what has meaning and what doesn’t, and so part of my task in writing these pieces was to try and figure out why someone would find this story charismatic or compelling.

When it comes to people who subscribe to unorthodox ideologies or zany spiritual systems, it’s breathtakingly easy to dismiss them as harebrained and illegitimate. But because I’ve faced various sadnesses over the last ten years, my impulse to deride these stories as simply kooky or out-there had defrosted, and I was instead more inclined to investigate the emotional and psychological imperatives that made such stories necessary for them.

For about 11 different reasons, I’m hesitant to call the book a spiritual quest—not least of which is my fear that it’ll be situated on the bookshelf next to Tuesdays with Morrie or something—and yet it’s hard to deny that books like Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of Walden, and the work of Adam Phillips weren’t in my head as I was thinking about the structure. The essays seemed to fall into two categories—narrative breakdown/disenchantment (both personal and national) and narrative restoration or re-enchantment, so there was a natural here-are-some-problems-and-here-are-some-tentative-solutions quality to the book.

JK: In “Midwestern Gothic,” you quote Freud describing the way the human mind “demands unity, connection, and intelligibility from any material,” and the human tendency to impose that coherence and narrative on events, even falsely. How do you wrestle with your own desires for a tidy narrative—a good story? Conversely, do you wrestle with—or indulge—a desire to disrupt or unmake a tidy narrative, to make “bad” stories?

BS: Gosh, this is a frighteningly acute question. I should begin by saying that I’ve been teaching creative writing at the university level since I was 23—for the past 13 years—and pretty much my entire curriculum is devoted to dissecting and mapping stories, either my students’ submissions or the work of published authors. And so when you’ve read thousands and thousands of novice stories and have been forced to enunciate their deficits, you can’t help but develop a certain muscularity for locating the myriad attributes that make a story successful.

I think we tend to think of “good” stories as those where all conflicts have been resolved, where the reader saunters off from the story confident in their interpretation, with the denouement still ringing in their ears with some clarion emotional lesson. For me, “The Christmas Carol” is the relevant example, in which Scrooge wakes up after his night of three hauntings, tossing coins to a street urchin to fetch him a Yuletide turkey and heading down to the Cratchits to seek an expiation. He is “a changed man”—spiritually rejuvenated and emotionally uplifted. And so we leave the theater and the world of the novel with moistened eyes and gladdened hearts, assured in the human capacity for true enduring goodness.

Of course, the tidiness of this narrative—and the heartstrings it pulls on—obscures the extent to which nothing structural has actually changed at the end of Dickens’s novel. Scrooge is still a capitalist, Cratchit stills works under him, and industrial England still chugs merrily along on the backs of unjust poorhouses. It was this that George Orwell assailed in Dickens’s work—i.e. that he was always pointing to “a change of spirit rather than a change of structure.”

Because I’ve faced various sadnesses over the last ten years, my impulse to deride these stories as simply kooky or out-there had defrosted.

This makes me think of your exceptional piece for The New Yorker on “self-care,” which was interested, among other things, in articulating how the narrative of “self-care” displaces responsibility for anxiety and burnout onto the individual, instead of supposing that the system of neoliberal life itself might have something to do with it. Of course, we all should make time for baths and pampering, but the narrative of self-care ends up obscuring the deeper issue of why we’re all so browbeaten in the first place.

I always think about that James Baldwin line: that art should reveal the questions that the answers obscure. And so in my own work, I’m trying to think, with dead seriousness, about the narratives we’re telling ourselves as a culture, that while they might be “good” formally (i.e. they provide tidy resolutions) they’re actually “bad” morally or politically.

One thing I’ve grown especially wary of are stories of fashionable denunciation, the way it has become breathtakingly easy to win the video game of social media by flattering received wisdoms and agreed-upon ideologies. As a writer, there is always the temptation to write a line that will do well on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

I guess I find myself more interested in stories—either personal or national—where the author, or authors, implicates themselves, where the gaze of scrutiny is not solely directed at the culture for the purpose of making some voguish condemnation but is instead turned back on themselves in the hope of genuine introspection. One of the things I so deeply admire about your work—I’m thinking in particular of “Jesus Raves” and “Attunement” from Thin Places—is that invariably there is a moment in the piece where you acknowledge the deep and real reasons why someone would live under these fictions. You confront these things without embarrassment.

JK: At what point did you feel that these essays—many of which I understand were commissioned piecemeal for magazines—wanted to be a book? What are your hopes for what they might achieve as a unit, rather than as solo pieces?

BS: Pretty early on I had a hunch that these essays were united by narrative breakdown, but I didn’t start conceptualizing them as a book until relatively late in the process. Certain themes were burbling to the surface, and I began to notice connections between them that went beyond personal neuroses.

One thing I’ve grown especially wary of are stories of fashionable denunciation.

My hope is that, as a unit, the book is a record of what it feels like to be alive in America right now, of how difficult it has become to be a person, that it stands as a vivid index of the many factors that are arrayed against us in the task of living humanely. By no means is the book a comprehensive account, but I hope it functions as a portrait of one person’s attempt to make sense of his life and the forces that try to make a claim on it.

JK: I love your mention of the impulse to go seek “a certain narrative template about what has meaning and what doesn’t” throughout different subcultures that others might find it easy to deride or poke fun at. That’s an impulse I’ve had as well. People sometimes ask me how I manage to be nonjudgmental (or something like that) in the face of the unorthodox or zany, but the question I’d rather hear you answer is: what did you love about the people you thought you might be put off by? What did you first meet with unease and then come to understand or love?

BS: The first thing that comes to mind is the consistency of their moral systems. Unlike my own relativism and that of so many of my friends, members of these various communities tended to act in accordance with strict guidelines and beliefs. The most salient example of this comes from the piece about the antiwar veterans who started an organic farm and protest community in the hinterlands of central Wisconsin. The leader of this community—Steve Acheson—was someone who assailed the myth of the American war “hero” and believed that it prevented veterans from interrogating the moral wounds of battle.

One day, he was telling me about how a farming collective that he was part of offered him the chance to put “Homegrown by Heroes” stickers on his produce, which would have undoubtedly helped his business. But Steve wouldn’t do it, believing the term a misnomer. However impractical this may have been, I found the moral courage he displayed in that moment to be so stirring and charismatic.

The other thing I came to love, particularly among the denizens of Lily Dale (a community of psychics and mediums in upstate New York, which I wrote about in the title essay), was their impulse to see every moment as zinging with significance. One night, after attending a séance, my brother and I met up with a group of young people in their late teens and early twenties, who had apparently grown up in the same area that we did. Rather than interpreting this as a happy coincidence, they were apt to see this as a potent synchronicity, as evidence that the universe was bringing us together.

They were disciples of astrology and believers in the spirit world, so on some level, this made sense. But you would not believe the open-armed kindness they extended to us that night, the merriment and hilarity of our subsequent discussion. It had the effect of thawing whatever cynicism and wariness that I had brought with me to the camp. At the end of our visit, during the wee hours of morning, we headed back to our respective dwellings and hugged, and upon our embrace, one of these kids whispered in my ear, “there are no coincidences.” Back home, I might have interpreted this as just so much gooey nonsense, but in their good company, I came, however briefly, to trust them and believe this.

JK: You mention narrative breakdown as one of the presiding themes of this book, and it occurs to me that you likely finished this book just as the pandemic was beginning, at the start of perhaps the most bewildering, incoherent, tragic, disjointed years of our lifetimes. (Not to assume what your year has been like personally; I’m just noting that “narrative breakdown” is a timely theme.) Has your relationship with narrative, and its fractures and failures, changed over the course of writing this book, or since finishing it? Has your approach toward your job conveying narrative changed?

Through the scrim of this interpretative lens, every narrative is a confection, a sly manipulation.

BS: When I first started writing the book, I was still committed to a deconstructive headspace that I’d been tutored in during graduate school, a critical stance that gets called “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” whereby we are supposed to read texts with a kind of carnivorous skepticism and to see the author as an agent of bias or a relic of their historical moment. Through the scrim of this interpretative lens, every narrative is a confection, a sly manipulation.

This was a useful critical mood during my various trips across the country, reporting on utopian communities or psychic enclaves or whatever, since it allowed me to countenance the ways in which we use narratives in order to obscure certain unsavory realities—i.e. the way that, say, the reflexive adulation of veterans as “heroes” allows us to ignore the fact that some three-fourths of the army’s population comes from households with incomes of less than $75,000. I.e. that the narrative of “military heroes”—however well-meaning and right-minded—obscures the extent to which the American underclass is sacrificing themselves for our relative safety and comfort. This is just one example, of course, but basically every piece in the book tries to pull back the curtain this way.

But as I hope is apparent, during the latter half of the essays, I start to become reacquainted with narrative, leaving behind the merciless stance of grad school and taking up what might be called the hermeneutics of affection. Possibly it’s owing to my experiences with addiction and depression, but I’ve come to see the radically transformative potential of narrative, the ways in which so many of our problems—both in our personal lives and in the culture, at least as I understand it—stem from deficits of storytelling, a hidebound disenchantment. Part of becoming an adult for me has involved the realization that it’s not enough to simply identify the flaws in existing narratives or to dismiss them wholesale in an act of voguish cynicism.

In fact, it’s been my experience that the reflex of judgment and deconstruction has actually prevented me from the task of genuine introspection. And so whatever narratives we do embrace now will seem to require that we come to our senses, to see ourselves as just as capable of wrongheadedness and groupthink as anyone else is.

As I get older, I’m trying, with what might be classed as a kind of religious doggedness, to see myself and others from a more patient and merciful vantage, which maybe sounds gauzy and sentimental and more than a little naïve, but when you’ve been in some of the headspaces that I’ve occupied, when you’ve wanted more than once to pull your own plug, you become uncommonly disposed to other modes of perception. It can feel like a prelude to true communal engagement.

JK: I found the title essay of this collection breathtaking. I love in particular how much room you make for mystery and tension in the essay: you convey both confusion/skepticism at the preternatural experiences your brother recounts as well as real faith and trust in him. Though his worldview and yours can’t quite coexist, they are made to do so in the space of this piece. I wanted to ask you about how you navigated the ethical and relational work of writing about someone you love, particularly when the period of your brother’s life (and your own life, and your relationship) you portray is a vulnerable one. How did you navigate the prospect with him, and how did you negotiate its execution with yourself?

BS: Well, thank you. That really means a lot to me.

I’m trying to think of how best to capture my brother for you. Imagine that the actor Vince Vaughn was a medium who worked in the tech industry, and you’d have a good internal picture of him. The guy can make friends with anyone and has this infectious, Emersonian charm—he “carries the holiday in his eye,” as it were. Perhaps because of this, he tends to move through the world with an enviable fearlessness, which is why he’s almost always game for anything.

And so when I told him that I wanted to write about his brain injury and paranormal experiences, as well as about our trip to Lily Dale, he said, “No problem. But tell the truth.” What he meant, I think, was that he didn’t want me to pull any punches. At that point, my writerly fangs descended, and my first impulse was fundamentally vampiric. I thought, good god, this is gonna be hysterical. I mean, come on, psychics and mediums and people who believe in fairies? I thought I’d dine out on it. But then we went, and certain things happened, and I knew that I would have to confront some of the darkest shit in my head.

It forces me to see other people, even people I might have winced at, as glittering moral examples.

As a writer who goes into these subcultures, I always feel the temptation to point and sneer, which is breathtakingly easy and isn’t all that interesting. And so one of the things I try to do is present myself just as candidly and vividly as I do any other character in the piece. I put everyone on the same level by offering myself up for the reader’s scrutiny. It’s unbelievably scary and depleting to do this, to court uncharitable interpretations, but it’s the only way I can see doing this kind of work without feeling like a mercenary. It forces me to see other people, even people I might have winced at, as glittering moral examples, as capable of nudging me toward some higher echelon of selfhood.

JK: What’s your process of determining the structure and treatment that will best serve a piece? i.e. Whether it needs to be reported, researched, mostly memoir, etc.? As someone who’s spent a lot of time reporting in a variety of settings, have you developed rules of thumb, habits, or principles for reporting well, and for processing some of the personal impact that reporting a story can have on you?

BS: Usually I know pretty early on whether the approach to a piece will be reported or purely memoiristic. But what always happens is that, once I start writing, the maneuvers of those other genres will start creeping into the mix. A reported piece will swerve into a personal essay, and a personal essay will morph into criticism. More often than not, this is the consequence of my overriding fear that what I’m saying isn’t all that interesting, so I try to push the story into deeper, more unexpected places.

One of my favorite contemporary writers—Elisa Gabbert—has described an essay as a kind of room from whose center she departs during the course of writing in order to allow herself to explore its farthest reaches and crannies. I don’t claim to do that as elegantly as Gabbert does, but I do feel a kindred impulse when I’m writing. This might explain my near-constant refrain when I’m responding to my students’ work. I’m always scribbling in the margins, “Go deeper,” which is, I suppose, a crude shorthand for the idea that piece might need to detach itself from the conventions of its supposed genre—reportage, essay, criticism—in order to arrive at a richer, more resonant conclusion.

Regarding my habits for reporting, I don’t know that anyone would find them pyrotechnic or interesting. I try to record everything and very infrequently use a notebook. I do this for two reasons. First, I want to inhabit the situation as fully as possible, and if I’m squiggling fiendishly in a legal pad, there’s already a latticework through which I’m filtering the events. Second, because so much of my reported work is immersive, it tends to go better if the subject forgets that I’m a writer and allows me to apprehend them as closer to the person they really are.

It matters incalculably that we attempt to tell more expansive and complicated kinds of stories.

JK: I like the framework you’re offering when you talk about the hermeneutics of suspicion giving way to a hermeneutics of affection. It circles back to what you were saying about “bad stories” and the space that’s made for better–or at least different—stories when we clear bad stories out of the way. Looking forward to your next projects, what are the narratives (at a macro, cultural level) that you’re interested in poking, unmasking, transforming, or clearing out of the way? What kind of space might you be looking to clear in your future work?

BS: Yeah, increasingly I’ve come to think about my work in relation to that Wittgenstein line: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” I think both as a person and as a citizen of this country, I’ve come to see how the pictures that hold us captive—the narratives we’ve been telling ourselves—are causing us tremendous pain and in some cases inciting us to become the worst versions of ourselves. And so in this sense, it matters incalculably that we attempt to tell more expansive and complicated kinds of stories, about both who we are and what it is we’re doing here.

Toward this end, I’ve become hopelessly obsessed with the ways in which algorithms are shaping our sense of self, which seems more and more to be the most pressing matter of our moment. Later this month, I have a piece coming out in Harper’s, which recounts the long weekend I spent last autumn in a “collab house” full of TikTok influencers, people in their late teens and early twenties who spend their every blink and breath turning their lives into “content.” Without getting too deeply into it, I’ll merely say that, during my time with them, they struck me as lurid distillations of a logic that has begun to inform all our behaviors on the Internet.

And because I regard elephants the same way that Nietzsche did horses, I’ve lately started to grow really interested in our view of animals and how they affect our working definitions of personhood. I suspect that in 50 years’ time we will come to regard our treatment of other species as the single greatest moral failing of our era, and so I am trying to understand how best we might come to think of them.

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lost in summerland

Lost in Summerland is available from Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2021 by Barrett Swanson.

Jordan Kisner
Jordan Kisner
Jordan Kisner's writing has appeared in n+1, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, GQ, The Guardian, The American Scholar, California Sunday, The New Yorker, The New Republic, New York magazine, Pop-Up Magazine, and Pitchfork, among other publications. Her work has received a Pushcart Prize and was selected for The Best American Essays 2016. The author of Thin Places: Essays from In Between, she teaches creative writing at Columbia University.





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