When the near capsized like a ship, the far swept me up: Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby” (2013)
Rebecca Solnit’s From the Faraway Nearby—named after the way artist Georgia O’Keefe would sign her letters to people she loved, “from the faraway nearby”—creates a map of storytelling and close listening, grief and transcendence, vulnerability and mortality. She begins the first essay with an address to the reader:
“What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.”
This address makes us a part of the text, makes us hyperaware of the form in which she tells her own story. Solnit echoes Joan Didion, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” but somehow comes across as warmer than Didion: there’s a warmth in the way she interacts with her story that doesn’t echo the cold distance we find between Didion and the world about which she writes. Though she isn’t the merely distanced observer, this is a book about seeing. It’s about listening closely rather than just hearing, and ultimately about forgiveness and the always long, usually looping journey towards it.
The Faraway Nearby, like Solnit’s other collections, takes huge risks by stitching a narrative that loops and roams through several ideas and comparisons. She describes her mother’s decline into illness, a difficult romantic relationship, and her own illness, but not by telling her story, rather by reflecting her story with ice, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, fairy tales, maps, islands, stitches, Che Guevera: the list goes on, and the story is seamless. Solnit links these seemingly disparate images in the graceful manner that only the best essayists can achieve, and she always leaves me thinking, “well duh, why didn’t I see that before?”
In the fifth chapter, “Breath,” Solnit describes a scene in which she is canning the surreally huge pile of apricots she has inherited from her mother’s tree. This scene does the metaphorical work of making memories: Solnit is literally creating something out of an otherwise sticky situation. This scene could easily turn trite or cliché, but it doesn’t. Instead, it feels like a genuine fairy tale. Maybe it’s because we’ve all been there. We’ve all had to tackle an unbelievable situation, and we long to do it with the intelligence and grace of Rebecca Solnit.
Later in this chapter, the apricot image swallows Solnit whole. She describes a scene in which doctors cut into her and the apricot’s skin transforms into her own until her cancer is “the bad spot that was being sought in the outer space under [her] skin.” Solnit isn’t interested in the easy metaphor, but rather in complications. When she is grafted with a piece of a stranger’s skin, she becomes Frankenstein’s monster.
The thirteen essays listed in the table of contents pull the reader to the center of the book (“Apricots”, “Mirrors”, “Ice”) to the centerpiece essay, “Knot”, then pull the reader back (“Ice”, “Mirrors”, “Apricots”). The whole book becomes a mirror, though not a cycle. A cycle implies a circling back, and by the time we reach the final essay “Apricots,” we’ve definitely moved forward in time. The form of this book reflects its content: topics are woven together, chapters literally mirror one another, but it’s not to say this book is cyclical. We’re definitely moving with Solnit on a journey, moving from Point A to Point B, through a series of ideas sutured together, like Frankenstein’s monster, to make one living, breathing being.
A fourteenth essay runs along the footer of each page in this book, literally linking the other thirteen while literally pulling us through the other stories. Aside from the book becoming an intellectual journey, Solnit makes us aware of the act of reading. With only one line per page, I was forced to flip through the entire book in a matter of minutes, quickly thumbing through the same pages that took me so much longer to read the first time. In an interview with Harper’s, Solnit says about this essay, “I wanted to call attention to the fact that the codex, the bound book, is an architectural space through which we literally travel with hands and eyes, and that to read a book of this length is quite a journey.”
An interesting and poignant thread that is introduced in the second half of this book is the idea of a labyrinth. Like this book, a labyrinth is
“the opposite of a maze, which has not one convoluted way but many ways and often no center, so that wandering has no cease or at least no definitive conclusion. A maze is a conversation; a labyrinth is an incantation or perhaps a prayer. In a labyrinth you’re lost in that you don’t know the twists and turns, but if you follow them you get there; and then you reverse your course.”
A labyrinth is meditative. To enter a labyrinth means to trust that the twists and turns will lead us to the center, and that we will discover something—about the world, about yourself, or perhaps a new sense of calmness. But this discovery can only be fully achieved by retracing our initial journey, by looking at everything from the opposite perspective. We must let something go in order to discover something new. A story only lives during its telling, and perhaps the most difficult thing at times it to let a familiar story go.
In the final essay, a sort of revisit to/revision of “Apricots,” Solnit writes:
“Some people love their story so much even if it’s of their own misery, even if it ties them to unhappiness, or they don’t know how to stop telling it. Maybe it’s about loving coherence more than comfort, but it might also be about fear—you have to die a little to be reborn, and death comes first, the death of a story, a familiar version of yourself”
So by sharing her story with us, does she kill it a tiny bit? Does she—do we as readers—emerge from this collection with a different version of ourselves? If to tell a story is to give it life, then to silence a story is to kill it. I think we’re given the tools and the permission to let go of the stories we want to let go, to give them a proper burial if we’re ready. Solnit pulls us through a labyrinth of details and possibility, showing us the path, and patiently guiding us along. I wasn’t ready to stop reading when I reached the last word of the last essay. The Faraway Nearby has that power that only the best books have—I actually tried to read more slowly so I wouldn’t reach the end. I’ve been unable to begin another book, stuck in that post-partum lull in which only a genuinely good book can leave us.