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Author Spotlight: Frankie Barnet, ‘Mood Swings’

If all the world’s animals were vanished by an egocentric billionaire with mommy issues, the sensical thing to do is to get paid for dressing in a dog costume and barking for sad pet owners who miss their companions. That is, at least, the line of thinking for Jenlena, a twenty-something Instagram poet at the center of Frankie Barnet’s hilarious and absurd debut novel, Mood Swings. At one of her pet gigs, she actually runs into the billionaire, Roderick Maeve, who’s next big idea involves going back in time to introduce solar panels to the 1700s in order to alleviate climate change. 

Mood Swings is an exuberant novel full of ideas and whip-smart, clever sentences that draw you into Barnet’s world. A group called Moon Bethlehems drop their first names and advertise on Twitter. A canceled man dates Daphne, Jenlena’s roommate and friend, and together they draw all the animals the world misses from memory. Jenlena shares her poetry with Roderick, but isn’t sure if their relationship is for appearance or if he’s actually invested in her. A pair of siblings sue their parents for being born. Confident and insanely readable, Barnet’s debut is one you won’t want to end.

Our Culture talked with Frankie Barnet about absurdism, morality arguments, and cults. 

Congratulations on your debut novel! How does it feel that it’s finally out?

Good, a little apprehensive, but cautiously optimistic.

I just saw it got an amazing blurb from George Saunders!

Yeah, I was grateful for that. I studied with George at Syracuse, so I had an in. I was so lucky, iit was beyond my dream at the time.

Mood Swings is such an interesting, warped look at contemporary culture. What draws you to satire?

It’s never felt like a choice, the way I wrote… coming back to George, I started my MFA at Syracuse in 2016. He had been my favorite writer for probably a decade before that. I always loved reading ever since I was a kid, but I never liked the things we read in school. I’m Canadian, so I grew up reading stuff I might like now, but found it so boring then, and kind of stale. Reading George, and even Kurt Vonnegut — it wasn’t even satires, but those books had so much life in them. I think in the last few years I’ve come to a place in my writing where you don’t know what’s gonna happen with it, if anyone’s gonna read or care at all about it. At the very least, I want to enjoy myself. I want to honor myself in both the good and bad extremes.

It’s very tedious, I’ve found, to be bound by reality. I was away for a week, and I don’t usually keep a journal, but I tried to keep one on the trip. I found it so boring! How do you decide what to leave in or leave out? In your writing, if you free yourself from reality, you let all the responsibilities of note-taking go.

The book opens with the idea that the world’s animals are revolting against humans. It’s such a striking idea — when did it begin to form in your mind?

I guess it was during COVID, when people thought it was caused by bats. There were always these stories, here in Montreal, some kind of whale came really close to the river near the city. Stories about animals doing crazy things. I guess that’s where it came from.

I really empathize with Jenlena’s way of thinking about the world — she desperately wants to participate in society and let the allure of her twenties take her wherever. When she gets into a relationship with this billionaire, something her friends might scold her for, she just shrugs her shoulders. Is there an argument for putting your own self first before others’ thoughts or ideology that might hinder it?

I think that tension is something I’m really interested in. I think there are ways I wish we pushed ourselves further, beyond ‘I like this sort of thing.’ It’s tricky because for the vast majority of people, it really doesn’t matter what we do. We can post on Instagram, ‘Stop eating meat’ and it doesn’t matter. It’s hard to denounce any normal person for enjoying what they enjoy. On the other hand, I do sometimes wish we could look beyond the individual a little more. I know that’s a vague thing to say, but I think the problem is we don’t quite know how. Then we run into these silly arguments of, ‘Oh, you liked a Woody Allen movie.’ We have nowhere else to put this fear and anger that we have.

I’m also so obsessed with her bad all-lowercase Instagram poetry, which she mistakenly believes will get her into a grad school in the United States. My favorite title is “once i stuck a beer-soaked tampon up my pussy.” Why did you want to write about a character who is also a writer?

I mean, I think she can get into a grad school! No one thinks so, but I went to a grad school in the States, so… I mean, [writing about a writer] came naturally. Personally, I love a confessional book, I love autofiction. I know friends of mine have a chip on their shoulder about it, like, ‘You’re not creative if you’re writing autofiction’ or a semi-autobiographical novel, sort of a cliché that that’s what everyone’s first novel is. But I have nothing against that. I guess it was a little sprinkling of me in the character, the kind of stuff I would write if I was less self-conscious or, I want to stay, stupider.

I love how the book gives time to all the characters, even canceled boyfriends and multi-billionaires. Why did you want to include multiple POVs?

It was very exciting to me when I discovered Jordan and he made his way into the novel, because you don’t really hear from these people. I guess some people would say that’s good, but he’s just a dishwasher that plays in a band. He’s not some millionaire celebrity. I thought it’d be interesting to hear what that experience is like, being canceled. It was fun to play devil’s advocate a bit, and I liked writing multi-POV because I was able to talk about things I’m interested in and that I do have ideas about, but I am a fiction writer, not an essayist, I don’t want to go out there and say ‘This is what I think.’ Not to say that’s what essayists do, but they’re a lot more careful about weaving their opinions into things. I can’t be that careful. What I can do is throw out four or five conflicting ideas about a subject, each of which are kind of true or I see the point in, and that’s how I can talk about something I’m interested in without being too didactic or simplistic about it.

When I read Mood Swings, I got the sense that fiction acts primarily as a kind of playground for you, which makes it so interesting to read your take on things. After the animals revolt, they’re all killed by this billionaire, who later wants to build a time machine to thwart the Industrial Revolution by introducing solar panels to construction workers. Is this a correct read, where you kind of let the ideas of a story take you where you go next?

Yeah, absolutely. For me it’s a balance between being totally playful and letting it run wild, and the editing and revision process is reining it in and implementing a structure that will ground the reader. I hope that’s successful. Ideally, I can put my head down and start writing in my notebook and not even think. And then after, it’s a process of, ‘What did I mean? How can I make this sound reasonable?’

The cult of Moon Bethlehems is such an interesting idea — it’s this group of people who, disappointed by global turmoil and climate change, drop their first names and seem to spread their message primarily through Twitter threads. Did you pull from anything in the real world to create this group?

Well, I’m fascinated by cults. There’s a detail in the book where [Daphne and Jenlena] meet in a cult class in university, and I took that class, and it was a defining moment of my life, studying from this woman who is very much like the professor they talk about in the novel. I’m not saying this book does it — I have an idea for another book I really want to write about a better cult — I’ve never seen a representation of a cult that does it justice, because of how fascinating I found this class and this woman’s research.

I think, for Mood Swings, I wrote the novel for a long time, and it wasn’t working. It was very flat and didn’t have these absurdist elements, no animal extinction, no Moon Bethlehems, no time machine, very boring. I was at a point with it where I had to abandon it or do something drastically different. I had this deluge of ideas about, ‘Okay, time machine, there’s gotta be a cult, no animals.’ I guess going back to having fun with it, throwing in ideas I was passionate about.

There’s this one section from Moon Cicero I’m thinking about where she’s promoting a feature in a magazine Sheila Heti lets her drone on about ‘pessimism as a radical act of self-care,’ but she comes to renounce it a bit later after seeing it next to an advertisement for Air Canada. I really liked how this act of self-promotion and vanity is right next to these leftist, somewhat holier-than-thou ideas.

Yeah, getting back to that tension you asked about before: how do we balance our higher principles with individual comforts and ambitions? I think it’s very easy to be, like, ‘How dare you do this materialistic thing’ when you’ve never had the opportunity to do that. But at the same time, what’s the point of having principles if you’re not… you know, there’s gonna be tough moments where you’re pressed on them. There’s definitely a couple online people who Moon Cicero is based on. I love it. And of course I have respect for all my characters, I have respect for her.

There is this note of absurdity that I’m really drawn to and love employing in my own writing as well. What is your comedy writing process like — did you set out to write a funny book or that’s just where the state of the world took you?

I think it’s in the tone of most of what I write about, probably a little more outrageous. I’m thinking of a later important revision I did where I was reading a lot of Lorrie Moore. I’ve always loved her, but I was coming back to her after several years. She’s a very funny writer but she’s also a very sad writer, and I think both of those things come from her specificity. I was in a drought of finding things I enjoyed, reading-wise, and I was surprised these stories had so much life. That was something I wanted to capture, being specific about wanting to do that and pick certain sentences that fell flat and injecting them with specificity. For Lorrie Moore, it comes out as either really sad, really funny, or both. 

Finally, are you working on anything else at the moment? You mentioned a cult book previously.

I am working on something else, but I did have a baby, who is almost nine months, which is crazy. I haven’t written anything — I try, and I’m hoping maybe when he’s a year old he’ll go to daycare here. Subsidized. I don’t want people to think I’m rich or something.

But I’ve been trying to write a novel, the central idea of which I’ve had for over ten years. I’m just struggling and I really want to finish it because I’m so tired of it. And then I want to write this cult book. So we’ll see.


Mood Swings is out now.

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