Bookforum talks to Cheston Knapp

Up Up, Down Down: Essays BY Cheston Knapp. Scribner. Hardcover, 320 pages. $25.

The word essay comes from a French word meaning “to try.” But thinking of an essay as simply an exploratory effort diminishes the form’s deep tradition—one worthy of serious study. With his debut collection, Up Up, Down Down, Cheston Knapp exhibits both a studied mastery of the form and a reverence for its artistry. In his capacious works, Knapp seamlessly weaves seemingly disparate topics. In one essay, he studies the performative nature of professional wrestling alongside memories of a fraught father-son relationship. In another, he scrutinizes both UFO fanatics and his own relationship with Christianity. Knapp excavates the literary influences of his own work and questions social narratives. All the while, he writes with great empathy for his subjects, an approach that eases the reader into sometimes uncomfortable territory.

I recently spoke with Knapp at a coffee shop in Brooklyn about his development as an essayist, the narratives of social media, and pervasive notions of toxic masculinity, among other topics.

In the book’s first essay, “Faces of Pain,” you write about decisions that are rooted in aimlessness. Has your decision-making process shifted throughout your life?

There are certain life events that you have to make proactive decisions about. We just had a kid a year and a half ago—even though you don’t know what’s on the other side of that door, that’s a decision that you make and you say, “Okay we’re going to do this and we’re ready for the changes.” Other decisions, you live into them. I didn’t set out to be an editor—or necessarily a writer—it just happened.

How did you end up at Tin House then?

I started at the magazine twelve years ago as an intern. I wanted to write fiction and so I read a lot of fiction. But eventually, fiction shut down for me. It didn’t fit as much in as I wanted—only 60 percent of myself would make it into a story. So I sort of backed into essays—they could be anything. They were a more capacious form. The word essay is frustrating because it means so many different things.

In fiction writing, the rules started to feel like they were boxing me in, and the demands felt stricter. We all have an experience of doing something, thinking about it, reflecting on it, and making meaning out of it. There’s something about the essay form that allows you to do all those things and not just present something smooth. You can show the meaning-making process. Essays are most successful for me when they’re not just a display of intelligence or learning, but also interrogate the consciousness that is doing that learning.

Is writing a way to reconcile your past self with the current one?

I’m a little out of focus when I look back at myself. I don’t quite line up. The overlay is there, obviously. There are all sorts of theories and questions about identity: What makes you you—is it just the body you’re carrying? Do you recognize yourself in your past or in habits? I’m really fascinated by those notions. Some neurologists think that the self is nothing more than a story that we tell about ourselves. And part of the challenge of maintaining that story is reconciling who you were at twenty with who you are at thirty or forty or fifty, and changing that story along the way in order to recognize yourself.

In the second essay, “Beirut,” you write about being in a fraternity. How did you go about being honest about your experience while also being sensitive to the ways that that culture is so toxic?

I think that word toxic is a good one. Throughout the book, I’m surrounded by examples of so-called toxic masculinity.

In some ways, masculinity was an ideal—there was a very basic notion that every experience should thicken your skin. In that essay, I measure myself against all of these fraternity brothers, and, honestly, I hope I come off a lot worse than those guys. I just didn’t fit in. They were really good guys. As a strategy, I think you always have to find the ways that you look the worst. If you’re writing about something and critiquing it, even subtly, you have to know that you’re culpable, too.

I thought I wanted to play that part, but I didn’t live up to it. I failed at being that kind of guy. I hadn’t seen anyone write about this, partly because it’s shameful, especially in the quote unquote literary world, where if you say you’re in a frat, it’s like, “ehhh . . .”

That’s part of why I liked the essay, you approached it with so much nuance. You weren’t apologizing, it was just a presentation of what happened.

I think candor is the key. There’s something about allowing yourself to be vulnerable on the page where you can’t be in life. In an essay, you have to poke places that you are insecure about. I’m insecure about everything! Absolutely everything!

You can feel that in the piece and elsewhere. I didn’t grow up as a reader, so I’m insecure about being in the literary world. I don’t have a pedigree. I was a shit student. I was intimidated by people who knew stuff. Something about making that vulnerability palpable for a reader endears you to him or her, and earns you a kind of leeway, if not respect.

I also loved your essay about, among other things, literary influence and David Foster Wallace. How did you reckon your personal connection to his writing with his exalted reputation?

There was the whole Saint Dave deal—the world made me feel embarrassed that I had liked him as much as I did. I would apologize for that, like, “I’m the opposite of him!” I would hide it. All of those actions are what pointed to why I had to write about him. Writing is only a product of reading. You fall in love with writers and somehow it becomes available to you. I think writing a book is a penance that you pay for all the spiritual sustenance you’ve gotten from reading.

You talk in the essay about having this familiarity with authors and not knowing how to refer to them. You refer to him as “Wallace” or “Dave” or “DFW.” Even though that was just a small part of the essay, I found it interesting.

I’m a huge fan of Nicholson Baker, and I’ve corresponded with him trying to get him to send work for the magazine. He always signs his name “Nick.” And for some reason in my mind I can’t call him Nick. I don’t know why. It just fits ill. There’s a strange intimacy when you respond to work. In a book, it’s something that honors how weird it is to be alive. When you’re able to brush up against another private being—I think that really only happens in literature. It’s not just serious, it’s also joy. It’s just a joy to know you’re not fully alone. I think it’s a miracle. You have to hold it lightly. If you take it too seriously, that luminousness that makes it so pleasant disappears. It falls apart.

In the essay “Neighborhood Watch,” in which you talk about the murder of your neighbor Peter, you discuss the way we narrate our lives as they’re happening, and how that’s a conversation.

We’re all narrating our lives and trying to exercise control over them. On social media, you’re consciously creating a character that people respond to. An essay can foreground those difficulties. How do we tell these stories? What form do they take? “Neighborhood Watch”was basically a series of queries along those lines: Isn’t it weird that we don’t even question how we tell these stories? Who am I trying to fool? What’s my role? Peter was killed, and it was tragic, and I cared for him—but not enough. I was trying to reckon with that shame.

Rebecca Schuh is a writer based in Brooklyn.