A meditation on stories—their power, beauty & personal danger.
The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. Viking, 259 pp.
We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.
Rebecca Solnit tried to leave home at fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen. At last, at age seventeen, her jealous mother and her indifferent father sent her into the world like a girl in a fairy tale:
For that odyssey my mother would not let me take any of the decent suitcases in her attic but gave me a huge broken one in which my few clothes and books rumbled like dice in a cup. My father gave me a broken travel clock that he said was worth repairing and I kept it for years before I found that it was not.
The Faraway Nearby opens with 100 pounds of apricots, collected from her ailing mother’s tree, ripening and rotting on Solnit’s floor, a bequest and a burden as if from another fairy tale. The fruit was a story, she explains, and also “an invitation to examine the business of making and changing stories.” So Solnit tells her own story, shows how she escaped it by entering the wider world of others’ stories, and how she changed her story as she better understood her unhappy mother.
What sent her mother’s indifference toward her into permanent rage was when she asked young Rebecca, age 13, for sympathy when she got a lump in her breast, and Rebecca, who hadn’t received much sympathy herself, failed to supply it. With effort, as an adult Solnit realizes that her mother had had a hard life, was trapped in her own story of victimhood, and must’ve cared for her before memory: “She gave me everything before she gave me nothing.”
Out of duty and from solidarity with two of her brothers, Solnit ends up tending her mother through her long decline from Alzheimer’s. The apricots arrive near the end of this sad period, which Solnit terms a serial emergency. Having hooked us with this, her story, Solnit tells us it doesn’t much interest her anymore. It doesn’t even explain her now, since she’s not trapped in it:
We are all heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them. . . .
The self is also a creation, the principal work of your life, the crafting of which makes everyone an artist. This unfinished work of becoming ends only when you do, if then, and the consequences live on. We make ourselves and in so doing are the gods of the small universe of self and the large world of repercussions.
A key to this unusual book is the story in The Thousand and One Nights of the sultan who, cuckholded by his queen, decides to sleep with a new virgin every night and kill her in the morning. Scheherazade volunteers to end the slaughter by telling the jealous man endless stories, distracting him with suspense so that he spares her life; in time she bears three sons, and he becomes less murderous. “Those ex-virgins who died were inside the sultan’s story,” Solnit writes. “Scheherazade, like a working-class hero, seized control of the means of production and talked her way out.”
Always helpless before her mother’s rageful story, Solnit at last seized the means of production: she dried those apricots, froze and canned them, and distilled them into liqueur. Provoked by them, she spun this book of many threads, storytelling about storytelling. The apricots prompted her return to reading fairy tales, full as they are of “overwhelming piles and heaps that need to be contended with . . .” They’re a riddle The Faraway Nearby seeks to solve.
To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest. Being able to travel both ways matters, and sometimes the way back into the heart of the question begins by going outward and beyond.
The table of contents itself, in its content and shape, telegraphs and embodies the book’s recursive structure, a moving out and a return. Six chapters move out—Apricots, Mirrors, Ice, Flight, Breath, Wound—and in the center, like the tangled passages in her mother’s diseased brain, Knot; six mirroring chapters move back: Unwound, Breath, Flight, Ice, Mirrors, Apricots. The table of contents resemble a flight of birds.
The Faraway Nearby, a book for serious readers and for writers, is hard to categorize. For the British edition, Solnit got her publisher to put Memoir / anti-Memoir on the back cover. At my local Barnes & Noble, I was surprised it wasn’t featured prominently—or at all—on the New Nonfiction table. An employee led me upstairs to some out-of-the-way shelves labeled Essays. Well, yes and no.
“Essays” implies The Faraway Nearby isn’t a cohesive narrative, which it is. But it has the expository meditative quality of classical essays. As cerebral and discursive as Annie Dillard, Solnit, with her stately pace and quiet musing, seems to owe more to Virginia Woolf. Late in the book she cites Woolf’s statement of how healing it was for her to make something whole of formerly painful parts, and of her rapture in finding patterns that reinforce her feeling that everyone is connected and that “the whole world is a work of art.”
Solnit’s long and evenly balanced sentences are set in paragraphs startlingly even in their length, like building blocks she’s patiently stacked; there are few space breaks. This engenders sentence and paragraph rhythms that foster a meditative hush. As Michelle Dean says at Hazlitt, “Solnit doesn’t have epiphanies, per se. She has long daydreams.”
Solnit has, however, fashioned a narrative from her life and her ideas and her travels. But not in a clearly event-driven way; most connective tissue is implied. Try it yourself and it can feel like you’re cobbling together a bunch of nothing. Her skill and her confidence make it cohere. Still, you wonder how she did it. She’s said she’s a collector of stray bits, her method bricolage. Using that clue illuminates her apparent working method: there’s been a patient melding, with verbal transitions for topic shifts. Though her method is collage-like, with disparate subjects juxtaposed, the white space one would expect is rare. This makes for more demanding reading—less warning of new topics and less time for a reader’s preparation. You’re immersed a new story before you know it.
An unusual aspect of this unusual book is that there’s a separate story that’s printed along the bottom of each page. Just one line at a time, a short sentence or partial sentence, it runs like a ticker tape below the main narrative. I gave up trying to read it as I went. It is phrased as if meant to be read after the main book, so I did—it takes about five minutes—and it begins with the scientific discovery that certain moths feed on the tears of sleeping birds. From this “sorrow turned into sustenance” Solnit spins mythic gold, a concise key to the book with its own resonant kick.
We’re feeding, metaphorically, on her tears.
Some of the urgency to be justified in my existence and to survive has fallen away, though the story remains, a hard pit after the emotion has gone.
Solnit compares herself to Snow White, the innocent beautiful girl who provokes a wicked queen’s jealousy. She says her mother would’ve picked for herself Cinderella, a saintly but abused girl, growing up as she did between prettier or more confident sisters. Her mother told her story, Solnit reports, “as a series of things that happened to her rather than things she did.”
As the book continues there’s much talk of reading, along with welcome stray reminders of those apricots, and references to Solnit’s relationships. Once she meets an old woman who knew Che Guevara, and Solnit tells us how Che reinvented himself, and of his kindness to lepers—and about leprosy, which she found useful for thinking about everything else, especially her numb mother. Thus, though Solnit says she’s left that story behind, we grasp how her experiences color what she sees and feels.
As a young woman, Solnit learned to say yes to physical adventure, another way to be unlike her mother. So The Faraway Nearby ranges. From her home in San Francisco, Solnit says yes to a trip to Iceland. She’s weak and shaky, recovering from surgery for her own breast tumor. We hear of her Iceland trip early on, at the end of the second chapter and expect to learn of her journey in the next chapter, Ice, but instead we learn about Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, which is saturated by emblems of ice and cold, partly set at the North Pole, and from which Solnit appears to have taken the Russian-doll structure of her own book.
We don’t learn about her journey to Iceland for some time, and then—like her cancer—it is mulled more than depicted. It’s as if we’re privy to her inner experience of making meaning, though you can feel unmoored in her meditative world. Yet implicitly this book about reading and stories and empathy offers, between the lines, a critique of storytelling technique.
She writes about Buddhism, which she apparently practices. Solnit notes that the story of Buddha, the cosseted prince who sought out suffering, is “a fairy tale run backward.” Buddhism of course emphasizes non-attachment to outcomes and the need to let go of your story and live in the present. To be without a story is to be lost, she says, but your story also can be your prison.
Mostly we tell the story of our lives, or mostly we’re taught to tell it, as a quest to avoid suffering, though if your goal is a search for meaning, honor, experience, the same events may be victories or necessary steps. Then the personal matters; it’s home; but you can travel in and out of it, rather than being marooned there. . . .
Stories like yours and worse than yours are all around, and your suffering won’t mark you out as special, though your response to it might.
Toward the end, she returns to her mother and to her mother’s end, to those apricots. Pared to its bones, she tells us, this book is the history of an emergency—her mother’s traumatic decline—and of the stories that kept Solnit company then. But she tells us she’ll resist the essayist’s “temptation of a neat ending,” and indeed she does. Questions flood in, a ripple effect of the book; her method, which meditates on meaning, doesn’t always presume to supply it.
How to tell your story? Whether to tell your story? What’s really your story? Is it what happened or, as in Solnit’s example, more the psyche and the events and the other stories—the life—it spawned?
Though in her book’s long middle you could forget, reading so hungrily and finding yourself jumping from story to story, she announced her topic in her first two sentences: “What’s your story? It’s all in the telling.” Solnit’s story, and her form of telling—by exploring the many stories that animate her life, the life which began in another story—often make The Faraway Nearby absorbing and thrilling.
Next: Further thoughts.