“What’s beautiful about the essay is you can resist the impulse to make the categories clean. You can make it muddy and fluid,” Jordan Kisner said in an interview with Rachel Z. Arndt from Publishers Weekly. And the fluidity of Kisner’s essays in her debut book, Thin Places, is arguably the most striking thing about this collection. Kisner seems to effortlessly move from research to personal memoir to social commentary—often within a single essay.
The topics in Thin Places are wide-ranging, but it’s also as if each essay is stretching its fingers into the next, so there’s a nice congruity throughout the book. In the collection’s first essay, “Attunement,” Kisner accounts for her sudden conversion to Christianity, and her just as sudden departure from the belief, while examining the almost religious nature of American secularism:
“One of the features of experiencing the end of a totalizing conviction is that it divides your idea of the world along a binary: There is the world in which what you knew was real, and then the world in which it is not. You belong to both versions and neither. You remold your basic perceptions into a new framework, and if you miss what came before, you rarely say so.”
In the title essay, she explores deep brain stimulation, a procedure requiring surgical insertion of an electrode into the brain, to treat Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, while dissecting her own experience dealing with the disconnect of the external world and her internal thoughts. Other essays explore a progressive church outreach that roams clubs in Union Square to find potential new converts, a group of Mormon women bloggers experiencing a political awakening post-presidential election of Donald Trump, and mysterious evangelical robocalls. The latter essay describes the way society has fallen into fear mongering:
“This is the era of being “robbed,” the year of the con artist, the time of everyone losing out to someone else. Immigrants are coming to take your jobs, Republicans are coming to take your health care, angry women are coming for men’s reputations and careers, straight white men are coming for your bodily autonomy, the police are coming for your life, trans people are coming for your bathrooms, the Democrats are coming for your guns, Silicon Valley is coming for your privacy, left-wing snowflakes are coming for your free speech, oil companies are coming for your land, and on and on. It’s an incomplete list—and naturally some of these fears strike me as well founded while others seem horrendously misplaced—but the rhetoric of persecution has become the national common denominator.”
The way Kisner strings these clauses creates a drumbeat of the fear that she’s describing. Her ability to echo the emotions she’s evoking in the style of her writing is impressive.
“Habitus” is probably the most ambitious essay in the collection. Kisner somehow combines reporting about a pageant in Texas where teen girls dress in Revolutionary-era ball gowns (à la Martha Washington), exploring her mother’s identity as a Mexican-American woman married to a white man, examining her own upbringing, and the television show Say Yes to the Dress. Though the essay could easily have been chopped into two more focused pieces, and perhaps been more effectively executed that way, somehow this long, wide-reaching essay works—a nod to the magic of Kisner’s careful layering.
No matter the topic, Kisner’s writing is unflinching, written with a curious and open mind and heart. She’s like a physician, taking the pulse of society, and sharing the results matter-of-factly, without judgment. This debut collection marks Kisner as a voice to listen to.
By Jordan Kisner
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published March 3, 2020