Exploring the stories of a life


Rebecca Solnit covers a wide variety of topics in this complicated, genre-refuting book.

Years — no, make that decades — ago, I was walking through decrepit, pre-gentrified Manhattan when I came across a piece of graffiti: “Everything happens all over, all the time, at once.” That those words have stayed with me is a testament of sorts to their loopy, irrefutable truth: In the city, of course, and also in the wild, and in the solitary wilderness of consciousness itself.

Now, were some enchanted creature to require me to say the magic words that would unlock Rebecca Solnit’s 14th brilliant, genre-refuting book, I might advert to that writing on the wall. The Faraway Nearby — a migration through continents and centuries, science and mythology, loss and cool solace — almost but doesn’t quite open and close with Solnit’s mother’s Alzheimer’s.

That sadly well-traveled emotional terrain — coping with a difficult parent’s decline — quickly shifts onto stranger and more engaging turf: a mountain of apricots (her mother’s final harvest, “a story waiting to be told, a riddle to be solved”); a visit to the Library of Water in Iceland; the killing and saving properties of cold; the germination of Frankenstein; the uses of pain; the necessity of stories; and identity, envy, grief and art.

On the bottom of every page, running like a never-ending river of a footnote, there’s a story that starts: “Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds.” You can chose, with the thought of avoiding distraction, to put off reading that resonant subtext. (“You can feed on sorrow. Your tears are delicious.”) But you’ll know all the while that it’s there; it isn’t waiting.

Everything happens simultaneously, in the heart and in the mind and on the earth, in every visible and deeply hidden layer, and it’s all of it a tale. “We tell our stories in order to live,” Solnit writes. We are all Scheherazade, attempting to talk our way out of erasure. The words we say to others are the bases of connection; the ways we “write” ourselves create identity. Our composition of experience can save us, or not.

“Stories like yours and worse than yours are all around,” Solnit writes, “and your suffering won’t mark you out as special, though your response to it might.”

The power of The Faraway Nearby, as in Solnit’s previous writing, lies in its juxtapositions (practical wisdom and thirsty moths; mother-loss and Arctic adventure), its clusters of narrative nerves. Known for the breadth of her interests, including politics, nature, geographies, art, and experience that falls between the cracks of the definable world, Solnit is a wanderer who collapses distance.

In a chapter titled “Wound” (Verb? Noun? Adjective?), she cites the source of her title: “After years in New York City, Georgia O’Keeffe moved to rural New Mexico, from which she would sign her letters to the people she loved, ‘from the faraway nearby.’ It was a way to measure physical and psychic geography together.” Here, temporal geography is feathered in as well.

In convergence lies genius. The world becomes grander and more intimate; the personal and the political entwine: “Many of the great humanitarian and environmental campaigns of our times have been to make the unknown real, the invisible visible, to bring the faraway near,” she writes, “so that the suffering of sweatshop workers, torture victims, beaten children, even the destruction of other species and remote places, impinges on the imagination and perhaps prompts you to act.”

Solnit’s explorations shimmer with insight, from her description of: “the mother who gave herself away to everyone or someone and tried to get herself back from a daughter” to the passing observation that Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Frankenstein’s maker, “died of birth,” to the pronouncement that “Books are solitudes in which we meet.”

Everything is pregnant with its opposite. A mother with Alzheimer’s, for instance, is the nearby faraway. So it’s fitting, perhaps, to close this review not with a discussion of the satisfying ending but instead with the table of contents. That page is laid out so the type forms a sideways V, like a flock flying home or away — a journey that’s transformed in its recursion.

The first and last chapters share a title (“Apricots”), as do the second and penultimate (“Mirrors”), the third in and third out (“Ice”) and so on; the next-to-middle most chapters are “Wound” and “Unwound.” Only the central chapter, “Knot,” is paradoxically not doubled. The appearance of the page itself suggests duality. That V could be an arrow of instinctive formation — or it could, on second look, be a wishbone, an avian clavicle we crack in half for fortune, a future we desire to write.

“All stories are really fragments of one story,” Solnit writes, “the metamorphoses.” In The Faraway Nearby, as with all good tales, it is the reader who is changed.

Dawn Raffel reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.

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