The Faraway Nearby
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)