Rebecca Solnit’s new memoir, The Faraway Nearby, is a morning poem.
Last summer, I sat outside on a covered patio beneath the awning and read it straight through. I read for hours. The book had been widely praised in reviews from the New York Times to Slate, The Millions, and beyond. It would soon be nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. I felt behind.
Solnit’s book is about stories. Beyond that bland statement of fact it is difficult to categorize. In 13 chapters, she writes of her own brush with cancer, her mother’s long path away with Alzheimer’s, the failure of a romance, and the interstitial spaces of friendship. The chapters lean heavily on the act of memory. In this, the contrast between her mother’s gradual loss of memory and Solnit’s immersion in her own memories is especially poignant. The chapters also lean heavily on readers who embrace its intensely personal nature. They (me) are guided through it by rhetorical finesse and Solnit’s daring engagement with an inventive panoply of connections.
The memoir is difficult to categorize because it is at once a path, a labyrinth, a landscape, and a meditation on metaphor. This is in keeping with Solnit’s prior writing on wandering, on getting lost, on the annihilation of space and time, and on the fractured images of art, life, and the environment.1 The Faraway Nearby challenges readers not to pick the metaphor Solnit wants to use, but to see how she sees her world by means of metaphor. It is, I would wager from under the awning’s cover, her best work yet.
It rained on and off the entire time I read it. Dark clouds would open up and the rain would pour down to hit the awning hard and loud and rhythmically. A soft plink-plip would sound on the canvas overhead before a whooshing pummel thud. It made me wish I could spell onomatopoeia without spell check.
Every chapter or so I would stop and stare, sitting there catching sights. Squirrels on the fence and up the tree. My wife through the glass door behind me, drinking her coffee. Ants on the table, a spider on my leg. I was startled by the spider, flicked it off with my finger, and then, thinking my eight-year-old daughter would be worried for it, started to worry that I had hurt that cagey spider. When I knelt down and touched it, it shimmied up some invisible thread. In between downpours, Sunday-morning runners shared the street with a lonesome car, a strolled child, a woman walking her dogs. The runners braved the rain, or were caught therein, which is maybe the same story.
As a reader by vocation and nature, I was starting to wonder if it was OK to space out like this and drift into the morning, any morning, outside the text. But Solnit says right on the first page: “Stories are geography … a way of traveling from here to there.” So it seemed genuine to go from here to there, from the text to the morning, from her story to my reading.
The Faraway Nearby is also a palindrome. Or it’s a series of nested dolls, the structural metaphor Solnit uses a few times and the one the publisher trumpets from the cover. But it’s also a threaded fabric, a web, an accordion extending out and back. Maybe it unfolds to the middle and then refolds to the end. Only the process of reading the book brings out the two sides of that fold. Reading is unfolding. The storyteller needs the reader to form the other side.
I read on. I compiled the metaphors. Chasing down the most apt one absorbed me for some time on the damp stone pavers of the drizzly patio. And anyway, it’s not a mystery. Solnit says straightforwardly the tales of Scheherazade inspired the book’s structure and purpose. The Thousand and One Nights
was a tale about storytelling, Solnit explains. These were the stories Scheherazade told to keep herself alive, stories she told to save herself from the sultan who had long planned, every night, to kill her in the morning. Stories that contained stories within stories and lasted a thousand nights because they were without end. Lifesaving stories.
Inspired by the book, it dawns on me that daydreams are fraying threads. I daydream between chapters but also in the midst of them. I decide this isn’t disrespectful, because the daydreams aren’t a diversion. They’re an extension, a geography. I’m not fleeing the text, but letting it push me, and flowing where its current goes. Here it’s safe to mix metaphors.
The pauses between chapters and inside pages (verses, if you will) formed the poem of the morning. During some of them, listening to Solnit’s story of stories pricked my ears and I caught other sounds. A piano, a conversation, birds, a train whistle downriver. The tracks are probably two or three miles away running along the Delaware, but the whistle brushed my temple. I remembered talking to the farmer at the barn where my wife and I used to keep a horse in Virginia. His pasture was seven-odd miles upland from the James River, which also, as so many rivers do, had a train track running parallel to it. If he could hear the train whistle, he knew it would rain soon. The humidity carried the sound—waves riding water droplets of distraction or warning. He learned he could read the weather by hearing the whistle. It was action at a distance, like the book’s action on me from afar, like a memory from the past.
The piano brought me back to the present. Someone was practicing. Probably my neighbor, the one who brings us English cucumbers from her garden and told us about the blueberry farm down the road. They were soft notes, fragments of different songs floating across the road and under the awning. For once, the cicadas were lost in thought and listening. Maybe the rain weighs down their voices, or their nerves.
Connections are, yes, entangling. I’m self-conscious about overdoing it, connective tissue everywhere, but at a certain point in the first few chapters Solnit makes the web of connections explicit. She connects artist friends of hers and Snow White and invitations to Iceland and Frankenstein and the fact that Mary Shelley was Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter (how did I not know that?), and the ways all these disparate pieces weave into the common fabric that is her own story.
It led me to daydreaming about Rachel Cohen’s A Chance Meeting, one of my favorite books. Like The Faraway Nearby, it’s about connections and webs of life, although A Chance Meeting is not a memoir but a repository of threaded lives, showing the separate lives of famous writers and thinkers converging in various episodes. Gertrude Stein and William James. William James and W. E. B. DuBois. DuBois and Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin and Hart Crane. Crane and Katherine Anne Porter.
There’d been a time when I worried I was overly, unusually attuned to seeing connections between things, ideas, people. It irritated friends when I’d go on about these overlapping metaphors. As with Solnit’s jumps between threads, palindromes, and nested dolls, a common response is, “Well, which one is it?” Then I read A Chance Meeting overwhelmed by its magic and the confirmation it offered—that I wasn’t crazy to see what holds things together.
Then the distance between reader and storyteller collapsed. By chance, I met Cohen. It turns out she was the childhood best friend of a friend of mine. At that thought I caught myself smirking to nobody, reading Solnit. That chance meeting with the author of A Chance Meeting unspooled in my memory—Cohen and Cohen—as Solnit’s story of chance connections and the fluidity of one story crossing into another unspooled along with it. Because I had to recall too, I also had a chance meeting with Solnit once,2 an interview conducted through the mail, our connections only typed words bouncing back and forth. Everything folds back onto itself, one chance meeting of drop and roof pinging after another, bouncing, echoing.
Books are echoes, you know. Their sounds bounce back and then away. This palindromic nested doll of a book also echoes other books, like Paul Auster’s City of Glass. If you’ve read it, recall that his chapters walk down, down, down, then back up, up, up. Or take something not like Auster at all, but maybe David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Instead of down down down, this one moves up up up, both temporally (from the 19th century to a postapocalyptic future) and spatially (from the sea to a mountaintop). After the middle chapter, farthest in the future, at the highest mountain peak, the story goes back down, back to sea level, back to the beginning. Which is the end. Instead of so many stories where the protagonist walks deep into the river and then walks back out the other side, Mitchell’s chapters emerge from the water and then descend back into it.
Solnit’s book, too, walks into the river and back out. The last line begins, “I walked into the river up to my neck and walked back out on the other side ….” It echoes back across the entire text and then fades.
When I got to that closing line, I remembered I needed to dive back in for one last thing. The book has a fun typographical feature: a story runs along the footer, one fragment per page. When there’s a page break between chapters, the continuing story pauses until the next chapter begins.
I wasn’t sure how to approach it. I tried to read the first chapter’s worth of that story after I finished chapter 1, but it was clear that stutter-step of snippet-reading wouldn’t hold up the entire way. So I left it to the end. The book goes out and back in for 13 chapters. Then there is this one, the footer chapter. It supports the weaver metaphor, undoubtedly, because that footer story stitches the entire book together. If this were a McSweeney’s book, I’m betting they would’ve actually had a thread that held the pages together. The reader would’ve had to physically unstitch it, page by page, to read it—and then sew it back to hold the book together.
Metaphors, it turns out, are liberators. They open, not close. The rain kept on, the piano now plinked, and looking at a new puddle outside the awning opened the balance between myself and my reflection. That landed me on a last daydream and metaphor, where I finally accepted that Solnit’s book is a balance. More than nested dolls, or threads, or palindromes, it is a balance. One side then the other side. Harmony.
Solnit is at the middle of the book. The central chapters take us on her very personal medical path of cancer testing and hospital gowns, friends and family who help or don’t, life and health, and death and disease. She, the author, holds the balance.
It’s not just that the balance is in her hands, but that she is the balance. Her narrative voice, her identity: this is a balance. Solnit may be sick, she may have cancer. We aren’t sure; she isn’t sure. Her mother’s decline through Alzheimer’s is at both sides of the balance of chapters. The child is at the center.
The chapters balance growth and decay. They balance change and stasis.
I said Scheherazade prompts the book, but wouldn’t you know it, apricots provide the through line for it. Solnit describes a floor full of them at the beginning. She found herself with a haul of apricots. They appear in various chapters. To balance it out, they appear at the end. Somewhere in between, the apricots are decaying, rotting, going away. But Solnit and her friend make preserves from them. The apricots are saved, they are perpetuated to share with friends later. Preserved. Like stories.
She is both remembering and forgetting. This is the major balance, because where is the harmony between memory and loss? Stories about remembering life are especially intense for someone whose mother is forgetting her own.
“Stories are for joining the past to the future,” says Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried. “Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.” Stories are invention, he later says. Our life is an invention. We make it.
In The Faraway Nearby, Solnit says this: “You can speak as though your life is a thread, a narrative unspooling in time, and a story is a thread, but each of us is an island from which countless threads extend into the world.” That’s from chapter 8, “Unwound,” where she starts to unwind back to the other side. I justify my daydreaming finally by seeing it as the threads that extend out from the page, from this reader’s side, into a morning poem. Rain and squirrels, neighbors and pianos, trains, dogs, ants, the past, this book, a spider, my wife, our children, the people I’ve known and loved, the people I miss, the ones I’ve seen run by. Metaphor, virtue, humanity. If I knew the difference between metonymy and synecdoche, I’m sure that would be there too.
The author needs the reader to balance it all out.
That footer story Solnit tells begins with the title of a scientific report: “Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds.” By around the middle of the book, she’s made it clear that the story unfolding from this report is about those who take (moths) and those who give (birds), about those who grow and those who decay (all of us). At just past the book’s midway point, at the center—the farthest reach, the deepest depth, the balance’s fulcrum—she lists those things which produce tears: “Pain. Sorrow. Loss. Thwartedness. Joy. Pattern. Meaning. Depth. Generosity. Beauty. Reunion. Recovery. Recognition and understanding. Arrival. Love. Mortality. Precision.” That’s the book in sum. It’s beyond daydreams, this morning poem.
- Solnit’s past works include: Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics (University of California Press, 2008); A Field Guide To Getting Lost (Penguin Books, 2006); Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities(Nation Books, 2005); River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (Penguin Books, 2004); As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art (University of Georgia Press, 2003); Wanderlust: A History of Walking, (Penguin Books, 2001). ↩
- Rebecca Solnit, interview by Benjamin Cohen, The Believer, September 2009. ↩