Erik Anderson’s 2017 essay collection, Flutter Point, begins by retracing events in human history, as if trying to find the common string through the chaos that has led us to this place and time in our existence. We struggle as a myopic species, too often forgetting that we too are animals. Anderson folds evidence from historic records and scientific data in with personal experiences and anecdotes using a nontraditional format to structure his essay. The case of our anthropocentrism quickly becomes damning without the author employing any overtly persuasive tactics. The first essay in the collection demonstrates Anderson at his best—when his style and choice of subject weave together lines of thought in an attempt to illustrate the author’s take on essential truths.
The most interesting aspect of this collection is the style the author adopts in order to keep his form free while allowing the reader to meander along with his line of reasoning. In one of his more self-referential essays, “Anything Other Than Everything,” Anderson addresses this deliberate struggle with structure. He says, “I proceed by trial and error instead, in fits and starts. I feel my way forward—always have.” His aversion to chronology leads him to explore themes and emotions in experimental ways that make his work ponderous and surprising. Not every writer can so easily balance inner monologue, structural observations about the world, and scientific theories, but Anderson does so clearly and concisely.
There are a few points of fixation that make their way into several essays in Flutter Point, such as the folly of hubris, documentary studies, and the function of the physical world we inhabit. The namesake essay of the collection references all three, and in particular brings to the forefront the physics of aeroelasticity and how a structure pushed past zero net damping will oscillate until failure occurs. “There are points in every system, even the psyche, when a disturbance becomes so acute that the whole thing starts to wobble and shake, when collapse first becomes possible and then inevitable.” It is this narrow border between harmony and collapse that joins these essays together. A physical bridge collapsing in the title essay serves as the grounding metaphor for that strange space we occupy on the verge of destruction, figuratively, psychologically, or on a planetary level.
Anderson adeptly constructs narratives of human struggle, whether internal or with the natural world. Some essays present evidence to the audience in a way that allows the reader to enjoy connecting the meaning between seemingly unrelated topics. It is easy to compare him to other essayists such as Malcolm Gladwell or Maggie Nelson because of his ability to bring together events, thoughts, and observations with an acute conscious awareness of the role of the author. He proves to be an expert researcher who trusts his audience to draw informed conclusions based on his selective content.
Anderson explores not only humanity’s hubris, but also his own. There are times when he talks about checking his privilege, or at least being self-aware enough to see his limitations on a topic. But there are other times when it becomes harder to accept the opinion of a cis white male when he describes a particular neighborhood or a female celebrity, still exhibiting bias after making statements highlighting his self-awareness. When he interrupts his thoughts on surveillance to wax philosophic about HBO’s Girls, he adds little to the existing dialogue about the show and distracts from the central focus of the essay. At times this heightened and academic self-consciousness gave me the sense that I was observing an educated outsider looking in at some aspect of culture beyond his normative perspective, to disorienting effect.
This brings me to a larger issue that many of us in the literary community have to face—what do you do to quell an overeducated mind in the information age? Anderson clearly feels motivated to share with an audience his ruminations on various subjects. In “The Sum of Two Cubes (And the Uses of Literature)” he addresses the compulsion to write and wonders at whether it is effectual or simply an inclination as basic as the biological impulse to fuck. In moments of mental oscillation where he worries about his role as the author or his place in the social commentary on a particular topic, he demonstrates how close his thoughts drift to some unavoidable flutter point. This anxiety is what makes Anderson’s bias forgivable, because it serves as yet another illustration of his central theme: we are all inclined to over think the world around us or to tune out what is too overwhelming for us to contemplate for too long. We all have our structural design flaws, and Anderson prods these flaws, mining them for use in his writing.
Ultimately, Anderson’s essays resound with the rare, intense focus of someone who delights in exploring an idea from every conceivable viewpoint. He is able to articulate both expansive and personal thoughts on complicated and difficult aspects of human existence, and does so in an inventive, experimental style. These heady, breezy, indulgent essays are worth reading, even if they proceed by “fits and starts,” feeling their way along. After all, what could be more human?