The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit: There are other ways of telling

One summer, Rebecca Solnit received an enigmatic gift: a hundred pounds of apricots, harvested from the garden of her mother’s former house. That summer, Solnit discovered that she had pre-cancerous cells in her breast – a prelude to major surgery. In le

The Faraway Nearby
Rebecca Solnit
Granta, 272pp, £16.99

One summer, Rebecca Solnit received an enigmatic gift: a hundred pounds of apricots, harvested from the garden of her mother’s former house. Her mother, with whom she’d had a difficult relationship since childhood, was slipping irrevocably into Alzheimer’s disease. For the past two years, she had been increasingly forgetful; at last, her children decided that the time had come to put her in a home. That summer, Solnit discovered that she had pre-cancerous cells in her breast – a prelude to major surgery.

In less original hands, this would be the beginning of a misery memoir or a memoir of illness and recovery, one of those straight - forward narratives that convert disorder into a gratifying tidiness. Not here. Solnit, an activist and writer whose best-known work is Wanderlust: a History of Walking and who has written 13 well-regarded and intricately constructed works of cultural criticism, is profoundly antagonistic to that kind of formulaic production.

Instead, she takes the apricot summer as a way of reflecting on stories: their eerie facility for both liberating and imprisoning the storyteller.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own,” she writes, “tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown.” Some of the stories through which she voyages are personal: her surgery, the long, antagonistic relationship with her mother, the death of one friend and the birth of another’s premature baby (which occasions a walk down a row of incubators, each containing “little flayed rabbits”).

Some concern the lives of strangers, from Che Guevara to Ashley Smith, a meth addict taken hostage by a mass murderer. Others deal with a wide variety of charismatic cultural objects, among them Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the lovely Dutch tradition of vanitas paintings and the journals of Arctic explorers.

This roving voice is further complicated by rapidly shifting physical locations: San Francisco, Iceland, the Grand Canyon. The resulting fragmentation is undoubtedly deliberate. Solnit is determined to replicate the porousness, instability and incoherence of everyday existence, “the loose threads, the strange dreams, the forgettings and misrememberings . . . the pantheon of dei ex machinaand the companionability of ghosts”, adding emphatically of the realist tradition: “There are other ways of telling.”

There are but even bricolage is an art requiring strict aesthetic controls. Occasionally, Solnit’s awesome, exacting attentiveness seems to wander. Stories jerk into other stories; threads are severed and never resumed.

A powerful section on the protest of Burmese monks opens moments after Solnit’s physical arrival in Iceland, returning us to San Francisco, the city she just left. Perhaps this is supposed to replicate an experience described later, of blundering through a labyrinth in the dark. However, it also suggests insufficient editing and comes at a risk of permanently unsettling the reader.

The phrase “the faraway nearby” (a coinage by Georgia O’Keeffe) is a kind of code for Solnit’s main objective, which is to illuminate the ways in which stories can nourish empathy, drawing us closer, by way of the imagination, to the distant, disfavoured and impoverished. This desire to inculcate empathy has always been present in Solnit’s work as an ethical concern but here it feels acutely, even painfully, personal.

Unsatisfactory mothers have cast a long shadow over literature and it becomes increasingly evident that Solnit, a writer whose work manifests generosity, grew from poor soil. As she scrapes away decades of accu - mulated bitterness, she recalls in both tone and content two of America’s more interesting poets, Anne Carson and Sharon Olds (the line referring to “the pale pansy of her face under a jaunty little veil; if I could have warned her, I might have cancelled my own existence” is particularly Oldsian, right down to the species of flower). Both have wrestled with another faraway-nearby question, concerning how specific one should be when making art out of the travails of the self.

Olds prefers the microscope, Carson a gaze that spans millennia and continents. Solnit, always a voyager of large terrains, here seems sometimes hobbled by her own story and sometimes to o keen to shuck it off and escape into what she has called elsewhere the blue of distance.

This is understandable and though it sometimes makes her labyrinth of stories a hard journey, it imbues it with a sense of urgency. As the seasoned activist knows to her cost, it’s easy to develop empathy for the distant other; far harder to apply it to the people with whom one is intimately entangled. Perhaps the best way of approach - ing The Faraway Nearby is as a work in progress – signs and way posts from a road still being travelled.

Olivia Laing is the author of “To the River” (Canongate, £7.99)

Boxes of apricots waiting to be transported in the Atlas mountains. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism