Swimming Studies + Crucibles of Youth + Young Adulthood
by Weston Cutter
I thought Leanne Shaption’s Important Artifacts was the best book of 2009 by quite a margin—the most interesting and strange and lovely book imaginable, a narrative with such a deftly sure but light touch I can still (and likely will forever) remember sitting in bed on a January morning (this was in Virginia, and the day was sunny, and it was I think a Saturday) reading the thing in a spellbound fit of massive gratitude and gladness. It was, in more ways than I can here articulate, a necessary book, something that helped me put my feet back on something like the correct path after reading it. The thing’s a stunner.
So imagine the thrill on finding out Shapton’d written Swimming Studies, out from the recent-+-amazing Blue Rider Press (they’re releasing the next Jean Thompson, folks! what’s not to love?!), and that, unlike Important Artifacts, which is a fiction done in the style of an auction house’s catalog (pictures, descriptions of the lots, everything arranged in the chronology of a relationship…Lord, just writing this stuff makes me want to go back and read the thing again—please, seriously, read this book if you haven’t), unlike that, Swimming Studies is a straight (basically) nonfiction account of Shapton’s life and career as a competitive swimmer—she came close to making the Canadian Olympic team in ’88 + ’92. That, however, is a sort of obtusely unfair way to categorize Swimming Studies. Here’s (I’ll claim) the best way to understand the book: Shapton, through her youth, put a lot of her energy and goals and dreams into swimming, or at least braided those aspects of her own life into swimming. And then, having reached the finitude of what she could as a swimmer (meaning almost but not there, though Shapton’s never this maudlin or whatever in the book), swimming receded for her. Or that’s not even it, either: it just sort of ghosts, I guess. That, at least, is what it felt like for me. But so regardless: what you can do is when you look at Swimming Studies, the title, you can sub in the word from your own youth and young-adulthood (guitar, perhaps, or poetry, or chess team), or you can go ahead and sub in the word Ghost. Or maybe even Longing.
Because what Shapton’s truly doing in Swimming Studies is something like locating or contextualizing this ardent pursuit and passion from her past. It’s not, in the book, that she doesn’t like swimming anymore, but that she no longer has the relationship to it that she did before—this longed-for, hard-fought-for thing (waking up at mad hours, eating crazy meals, abjuring all sorts of social aspects), and that she somehow was almost rejected by swimming. She makes clear she had her own reservations about racing in ’92—she had, in fact, quit briefly after ’88, or tried. It’s all real complicated, and I’ll just note that the woman takes a whole mess of pages to try to articulate somehting coming even close to stating what her relationship is now with swimming—summing such a thing up here is ridiculous (Garner’s NYTimes review touches on some of this stuff, but honestly it’s just hard to get your head around it unless 1) you read the whole book, which you should, or 2) you yourself have had something in your life that was, for a long time, something you defined your time and energy because of and around, and now do not [relationships don’t quite work in this context, simply because that’s just life—most of us will try to be in relationships, and most of us will have at least one colossal fuck-up of a relationship; Swimming Studies will make sense to you if, say, you were deeply, deeply into, say, math, and you were talented and gifted at it, and encouraged to major in it, but then, once at college, you realized that the study of it offered no joy at all, despite the fact that you used to be captain of the math team in high school, and you used to actually just love doing algebra for fun, just walking around).
So there’s all that about swimming in Swimming Studies, and it’d be a good enough book if that’s all it was doing, if it was really just trying to focus on how it feels to be an adult and to look back at the massive mountain one ground one’s youth against, climbingly, but what Swimming Studies also does is try to articulate something about swimming itself, and the kinship between aesthetic and athletic pursuits, and, most profoundly to me anyway, the book deals quite a bit with fracture and solitude—with the actual sensate stuff of what obsession feels like, from the inside, the sort of blink-brief glipses one gathers of the world when one’s deeply involved in _____, be it swimming or math or making ice sculptures—any practice which demands the max limits of our own attention and concern.
Last, Swimming Studies is fascinating writing. Garner’s right: there’s lots of poetry here, but there is also, in I think more compelling ways than I’ve seen elsewhere, a level of well-chosen vignettes that, together, make for a cohesive whole which has its own sort of absence and ache. This is hard to articulate. Here’s an example, and perhaps timely as well: some of Cat Power’s very very best stuff are songs which are very very thin, intstrument wise—her and maybe one or two other things—and the songs seems full of absence, the nothing that is of Stevens or whatever (I’ve ended up, in classes, using the phrase generative nothingness, which sort of works, but not perfectly, in this case). What I mean here is that some of the chapters of Swimming Studies will end up feeling oddly oblique, or as if they’ve only a glancing significance to the overall work, yet what Shapton creates in this sort of not-what-you-expected conglomeration of moments is a book that resonates more loudly for such choices. Here’s what I mean: toward the end, Shapton uses the line “I put the longing in belonging.” If it sounds silly or whatever here, out of context, that’s fine, but the twin pulls of the line—one part total ache, one part total comfort—are the two big lights spotlighting Swimming Studies throughout. Get the thing and read the thing. Shapton’s even more For Real than you believed.