SUMMERLAND IS a word for New Age heaven: the spirit of you goes there when you die. Until then, it’s also a word for Florida. Barrett Swanson, author of the essay collection Lost in Summerland, sheltered there during winter 2016 in his wife’s grandfather’s condo. The vacation was meant as a wedding present, but it had a subtext. After years in the academic hothouse, people were worried about him — his spouse, his parents, even his students. He didn’t seem okay. But why would he? The world is not okay, and Swanson, for better and worse, is sensitive enough to notice. He can’t turn it off: the analysis, the wash of clues, the paranoid weavings of his psychic safety net — as if understanding things keeps them from hurting. If you’re reading this, you probably know the type. You might even know the feeling.
Swanson embodies the enlightened Last Man, as he writes in “Notes from a Last Man,” the collection’s first essay. The pieces here — covering the first-world burdens of adjuncting and tenure, the worried wanderlust of the overeducated — have found homes in The Paris Review, Harper’s Magazine, The Believer, and others. But that’s part of it too. Harper’s isn’t the monument it used to be, any more than any other skyscraping magazine of yore, publishing being, like Midwestern MFA writing programs, another institution selling outdated mental equipment. “Most of the amenities inside the apartment haven’t been updated since the Kennedy administration,” Swanson writes of his Florida retreat, and maybe the tenets of New Journalism are right there on the Formica with the other “senile kitchen appliances.” We keep buying, not because these frameworks explain the world, but because facing the contemporary empty-handed feels nigh on suicidal. Then again, they say empires only die by their own hand.
The 14 essays of Lost in Summerland range over the continental United States, but their travelogue is spiritual. The book explores what happens when, having put the best words in the best order, the author looks around and doesn’t know where he is. He can’t go back; he can’t make it new — he can only start again. But that humid malaise travels with him, an ambivalent funk he can neither embrace nor wave goodbye to, believe in nor dismiss. He can only name it. Call it Summerland.
Swanson can describe the sky and the sunset and the light in novel, forced ways — the chlorine skies, Creamsicle sunsets, flickering coins of moonlight that attend each striving scene: “geodes of light”; “yolky,” “lemony sunlight”; “torrid,” “mimosa-colored sunshine”; “the wine light of a molten sunset”; “dawn-glinted,” “scum-laden,” “gunmetal,” “gelid,” “brunette,” “oil-dark,” “Windex-blue water”; “mackerel-colored clouds”; a “distant,” “provisional” sky. It’s too bad that stale description of nature isn’t the problem.
The problem is narrative — not only that narrative has broken down, but also that the tools used to break it, Swanson’s rote roll call of “the urtexts of poststructuralism” by Foucault, Derrida, and “even Gilles Deleuze,” aren’t doing the trick either. Dressed in the image of the life of the mind, Swanson believes, as he writes in a passage on Nietzsche, that he could “place [his] faith in the indeterminacy of meaning.” But there he is, on vacation in Fort Lauderdale, reading a picture book to his nieces beside a “kidney-shaped pool” beneath the “clacking palm trees,” when he runs out of pages: the end of the story has been ripped out. There’s no denouement, and, to his chagrin, he can’t make one up — not even to regale a child. This is a sign.
Again and again, from its epigraph to its acknowledgments, Swanson’s book tells a story of the end of myth. It’s self-reflexive that way, and unironic, since narrative remains what folks want. Narrative reassures, and narrative sells — James Pogue writes that “America’s higher echelon of long-form journalists can now expect to make more money from Hollywood than they do from the publications that print their stories.” The story is this: Swanson and his millennial cohort are lost — his wife, also an essayist with similar credentials; his brother, a brain-damaged bouncer who thinks he hears ghosts; his colleagues, also academics and artists, who commiserate about Trump and dabble in psychedelics. When they drop out, they head to Summerland, hoping the mass-market sunshine will subdue their reason.
Should I quote Barthes here, or merely paraphrase the paradox of the Writer on Holiday, who turns their vacation into the first essay of their first collection? Reader, I can relate. I too grew up on a liberal archipelago in the sargasso of a rural state. I too remember watching the Twin Towers fume on TV in the high school library, dark clots of phosphor slipping down their sides. I too omit my MFA from my bio. And I am lost, and so are all my friends — even the ones with teaching jobs or real estate or kids, the ones whose lives most closely match the success patterned by some of our parents. Swanson writes, as I could:
[M]ost of my conversations with male friends had begun to resemble unofficial therapy sessions. Lots of these guys I’d known since college and were scattered in cities across the country, and whenever we called one another to catch up, the charade of light chitchat quickly devolved into a dirge of existential updates.
I know some of this sounds snarky. Swanson’s book cuts deep with a shard of mirror, and I’m trying not to bleed.
Lost in Summerland reads a bit like George Packer’s 2013 book The Unwinding. Packer is a boomer journalist who covered the invasion of Iraq for The New Yorker, among other marquee war correspondence. But The Unwinding takes place at home, in the fallout, among normal folks in major cities and their hinterlands who have outlived the American Dream — that promise of upward mobility best enjoyed by Packer’s very generation and sustained, it turns out, by foreign wars. Swanson isn’t a war correspondent exactly. His account of the United States’s 21st-century adventures speaks to the unwinding domestic front. He doesn’t join up after 9/11, but his classmates do. As an essayist, the stories he tells of broken dreams, frayed promises, and a traumatized population duly take the form of travel writing spanning the suburbs of Milwaukee where he grew up to the lip of Florida where he winters. As an adjunct at a liberal arts college, he teaches composition to War on Terror vets his own age:
Over a decade later, face-to-face with these students, who had been halfway around the world and back, who often stared at me with spooked eyes and a squirrelly intensity, I was forced to confront certain aspects of myself that I’m reluctant to admit. The fact of the matter is that while I went off to college and attended keggers, these men and women were devoting their lives to certain fleecy abstractions that would make most of the civilians I know roll their eyes: duty, honor, and country.
Writers understand, not fight. Swanson sees thoughtful reporting as a duty, in many ways equal to combat. He notes that, after World War II, even the bellicose and virile Ernest Hemingway agreed: “We have come out of the time when obedience, intelligent courage, resolution and the acceptance of discipline were most important, into that more difficult time when it is a man’s duty to understand his world rather than to simply fight for it.” We’d be better off still if our soldiers thought things through before they deployed.
One of the collection’s most powerful essays (and one that compelled me to look up “lallating,” “brume,” and “vade mecum”) focuses on a group of antiwar vets who find their own back-to-the-land movement in the soil of an organic farm. Many were active protesters; now, they’ve swapped their picket signs for plowshares and sell fresh veg outside the VA. They buffer their crops against “corporate corn” in “military formation” with ranks of weed-killed sunflowers. Skirmishes against a bloodthirsty government take the form of applying for veterans’ employment grants and getting turned down for vague, probably political reasons. This is a rhetorical fight. Swanson cites Lawrence LeShan’s distinction between “sensory” and “mythic” war — the “carnal experience of combat” and the “fable we construct to justify the depravities of battle.” Having survived the former, these warriors against the war are waging the latter. Swanson pivots on the page breaks, juking between exposition and analysis and snatches of dialogue, choosing images and lines that burn through the word count and to the bone. “His eyes are glittering and fervent,” Swanson writes, “full of petition. ‘Honestly, man,’ he says. ‘I’m still trying to figure that out. I’m trying so fucking hard to become the person I want to be.’” The healing power of psychedelic sunsets over worked and fruitful land. But also, the healing power of striking the word disorder from PTSD: it’s healthy to find combat traumatic.
And still, having come of age in the 1990s, Swanson is a veteran of the persistent paranoia of kidnapping panics, school shootings, and mass surveillance, as not even white privilege exempts this generation entirely from the post-draft endocolonization of an aggressively recruited volunteer army and militarized police. Other memorable moments in the book include “Midwestern Gothic,” a deep dive into true crime and internet conspiracy threaded through the night his best friend’s body was found in a river; “Calling Audibles,” a meditation on the parallel violence of football and imperialism in a frontierless United States through the lens of his own high school jockdom; and the Martin Luther King Jr. echoes of “Letter from a Target-Rich Environment,” an only partly sardonic account of active-shooter training at his new workplace. A weekend at a West Wing cosplay conference is described thus: “It is a literary predicament that seems to embody our own existential crisis: Is America’s story one of tolerance and progress? Or is it a scrambled, fragmentary tale whose meaning is uncertain?” At a weekend with a men’s group, they scream the answer “from [the] balls all the way up”: “FUCK. IT. ALL. […] IT STARTS NOW!” Swanson spares a thought for their wives: “That such comments might benefit from feminist scrutiny,” he writes, “seems too obvious to mention.”
Poststructuralism teaches us the power of confirmation bias, in science and politics as in art. And yet … It seems properly, soundly literary to see the United States’s last decade as a panorama of neurotic ruin, whether or not it reflects Swanson’s personal battle with obsessive-compulsive disorder, whether or not it’s relatable beyond the pages of Harper’s to describe a place called Disaster City as DeLillo-ish. In a post-COVID-19 essay, Swanson takes us to an ersatz ground zero, a training facility in Texas where one can stand on a hill and view Amtrak pileups and Oklahoma City bombings and Main Street hostage crises lined end to end — what one spokesperson calls “a Disneyland for first responders.” Except, Swanson argues, this paranoiac paradise is mostly a pressure valve, an “exercise” in the sense that, as he writes in “Last Man,” the author goes running ’til his ribs show, trying to exhaust himself against anxiety. And so, he observes that no one else — not his handlers, not his fellow Victim Volunteers, not even the guy in the hazmat suit practicing hosing him down in the Wet Decontamination Trailer — seems at all concerned about a certain coronavirus outbreak in a place called Wuhan, China. These disaster reenactments don’t prepare us, as a society, for the inevitable. They inoculate; they inure. They make preventable death and destruction from storms like Katrina and Sandy — and all those as-yet-unnamed tempests that will one day surge westward down a coruscating boulevard of Atlantic sunlight — seem like acts of God.
Here we are, safely in some afterlife, the sunniest, safest parts of the greatest country on Earth or wherever, yet still wracked with doubt. It’s here where our senses overcome our reason and tell us, Maybe there’s magic after all? The titular essay, “Lost in Summerland,” stands out both as the abysm of the book’s rich ambivalence and the moment where the author gives up, seemingly worn down by the effort of not knowing. The piece’s plot hangs on a trip Swanson and his brother made to a gathering of Spiritualists, psychics, and mediums at Lily Dale in southwestern New York State. Swanson’s brother was put into a coma when a drunk man delivered a haymaker to his skull. Since his recovery, he’s had preternatural abilities of the sort hard to swallow for the dutiful poststructuralist. The author writes that he agreed to the trip partly in the spirit of fraternal bonding, partly to put these metaphysical notions to some kind of empirical rest. At the very least, it would be an interesting story.
Maybe you know where this is going — indeed, the tenets of compelling storytelling almost demand it. In the end, the brother is able to intuit a series of numbers and questions written on cards, the name of a fellow pilgrim’s husband. He also, it is revealed, sensed Swanson’s darkest moment, kept seeing visions of the author killing himself, at a time when he considered the relief of a belt around the neck. This piece first appeared in an online journal of incredible but true nonfiction, a setting that presents “Lost in Summerland” as the ultimate test of the journo’s embedded yet cynical posture. The nonfiction essay, like other myths, is designed to make events into stories, to reroute the pain of uncertainty toward a greater purpose. In the end, rather than dwell in the contradiction of a Summerland sacred and profane, Swanson’s collection errs on the side of superstition. The author allows that maybe he believes in God, even if he doesn’t.
It’s a little inveigling, then, adrift on our hot ponds of ambivalence, to keep rhapsodizing the steam rising off the surface. We know that the Iraq War was obviously corrupt, the American Dream was never real, utopia literally can’t exist — and yet it’s not the healing promises of organic farming or collective action or even paid time off that stirs the author to belief, but his brother’s baffling clairvoyance. The point, of course, is that even belief in the demonstrably false can have true, salubrious effects — or, spun another way, that the traceries of professional letters are no less valuable for their mysticism. Maybe there’s a millenarian streak to millennials. We with our student debt and our Substacks, our post-traumatic stress and our clinical ketamine and our tattoos from The Unnamable — we for whom the main affect available, the place where we return after all those summer words, is “lost.” But at least this place exists.