JUNE 21, 2013
WHAT IS LEFT for the explorer? Here on Earth, the highest mountains have been climbed. The deepest oceans sounded. The poles measured and weighed. The human genome, too, has been cracked open like an egg to be played on like a pipe. Have we come to the end of exploration, when our once beautiful blue planet was a place of unlimited possibility, a place (though bounded in a nutshell) of infinite space, and we the kings and queens on it? We might look to the stars, but our science tells us that not even the universe is infinite, for if you begin in Iowa and travel in a straight line out into the cosmos, eventually you’ll end up back in Iowa. It turns out that space-time is curved. (Of course, there is the possibility that through a singularity, an event horizon of space-time, there is another universe that contains yet more universes. But whatever happens or is happening outside our universe we cannot know.) Apparently, you have to travel a long way to discover that all roads lead home, a cliché, sure, but no less true.
And once back home, what does the explorer discover? The physical journey speeds up for a while in the mind, becomes a whirling bluster of blown leaves and longing, images and phrases and conversations, little snippets of the sun and moon and stars, the rain too, until the body internalizes all this, and then moves on to more-general feelings. In the aftermath, you have what sticks, the basis for the human experience, the foundation of the human heart: hunger and thirst, fear and frustration and anger, calm, joy, and love. Yes, love too. Or maybe love mostly, or love only. The journey outward into the cosmos teaches you that love is possible, love of another, and maybe even love of the self. Yet what the explorer loves best is freedom, the light-skip of an unencumbered mind in an unburdened body on an open-ended journey. What the explorer loves best is freedom to roam, and to be alone in a roaming loneliness, to be alone in thought, and, at least for some of the time, to be alone in place. This is how an explorer rediscovers infinite space bounded in a nutshell, rediscovers that the Earth is limitless if you look to its subtleties. This is how the explorer returns home along the public road. The end of exploration? Certainly not, as it seems we travelers never tire of the journey, and we readers, neither. Conquest is not the point, but rather the experience, the passage, and every passage is nearly a singularity.
Rebecca Solnit is an explorer of the most exquisite kind, and a writer of the public road. As Whitman affirmed, even cut loose this way by the journey, we carry our “old delicious burdens.” In fact, these burdens define the road we wander. In her newest book of nonfiction, The Faraway Nearby, Solnit takes us out, on a genteel arc, along the pathways of her burdens (you see this arc represented visually and by the repetition of chapter titles on the contents page), not from Iowa to Iowa, but from the first chapter “Apricots” to the final chapter, also “Apricots,” which tells the story of her mother’s journey into Alzheimer’s. When the story bends back toward the beginning — the chapter titles are “Breath,” “Wound,” “Knot,” “Unwound,” “Breath” — you can see the shape of the arc. Solnit lands in Iceland to convalesce from her own illness (cancer) — Iceland as good a place as any to represent the outer reaches of the universe. The country, she writes, is “strange as another planet.”
Part of the experience of reading this book is discovering how it works. It is no ordinary memoir, if it is a memoir at all. Like Solnit’s 2005 book A Field Guide to Getting Lost — to which this book is a companion, like the bride of Frankenstein (Frankenstein, a book Solnit writes in some detail about) — The Faraway Nearby is a compilation of personal stories and forays into philosophy, natural history, art and culture, and the writing life. It’s a story about stories, written in swirling loops, one leading from and into another. We follow Solnit’s mind, and what a mind it is, as vast and intriguing as a system of caverns and passageways opening into yet more caverns and passageways. Like Bruce Chatwin before her, Solnit is an artist of the fantastic. She takes on leprosy and empathy; polar bears eating each other; sipping at Rilke’s tears; and Wu Daozi, the Tang Dynasty artist who brought the emperor to a cave he had depicted in a mural in the Imperial Palace, and then walked into the cave and vanished. “People disappear into their stories all the time,” writes Solnit.
The book’s title is from Georgia O’Keeffe, who called her little corner of New Mexico “the faraway nearby” in letters to friends back east. This is the curvature of space-time. What is faraway is nearby, and what is nearby is faraway. You can travel to a remote island nation in the north Atlantic, but your delicious burdens, the troubles and joys of daily life, come right along with you. “Those grim days,” as Solnit calls her “medical adventure” in cancer treatment, would lead her to being “cured of more than [she] had been diagnosed with.” Primarily, she writes, “I was going to have to give up being unstoppable. I asked for help.” Asking for help, she posits, puts you in debt, but such debts “tie us together.” There are gifts, she writes, “people yearn to give.” And so love is a debt one owes to another, as well as a gift outright.
This is a book about the author’s mother, and about the author, but it is also a book about the reader, and the reader’s story — a book about stories. Three times (at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end) Solnit asks the reader, “What’s your story?” It’s a rhetorical question; she’s not listening to us so much as we are listening to her, incurring a debt the writer can never pay, but her honesty and openness allow the reader a space to ask the question of herself. “To love someone is to put yourself in their place,” Solnit writes, “which is to put yourself in their story.” Place is not static: “A place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.” Of all her powers, the storyteller’s greatest is empathy, and before empathy for another, empathy for the self. This quality is what the writer hopes to pass on to the reader. It’s how we come to know and care about each other.
If The Faraway Nearby is a companion to A Field Guide to Getting Lost, it is also a companion to an earlier Solnit book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000). That book is more scholarship than memoir and is conjoined with The Faraway Nearby by an element present in each book: a running marquee along the bottom of the pages, a line of text that continues onto the next page, and then the next page, all the way through to the end. In Wanderlust, this line of text is a series of quotations, an innovative approach to Chatwin’s notebooks, which take up nearly a third of his masterpiece, The Songlines. In The Faraway Nearby, the marquee is a continuous story, a story that centers on a species of Madagascar moth that “drink[s] the tears of sleeping birds.” In this story, Solnit writes, “There are two protagonists […] a sleeper and a drinker, a giver and a taker, and what are tears to the former is food to the latter.” Do you follow? To love, and to be loved. This story at the bottom of the page within the story of the book is of particular note because it is either a distraction or an augmentation. It depends on how you read it. If you try to read both at the same time, it becomes like measuring photons of light; as you read one story, the other story vanishes. You read several pages ahead along the bottom of the page, until you realize you’ve forgotten the rest of the book. You turn back the pages to catch up, and by the time you do, you can remember only fragments of the story at the bottom of the page. “The sentence,” writes Solnit, “can run away with you.” A better option is to read the book, and then read the story at the bottom of the page, or the other way around. Only in its parts can you come to know the whole. This is known as taphonomy.
A few nights after I finished reading The Faraway Nearby, I gathered with a group of friends, one of whom was a woman active in Texas state politics. The subject of books came up, and we passed around favorite titles. This friend then announced with some provocation: “I think I have gotten too old for first-person narratives.” Memoir is too self-serving and too self-absorbed, was among her chief complaints. To which, several people raised their glasses and said “Hear, hear!” As a writer of first-person narratives myself, I raised my glass too, but only to avoid suspicion. I love first-person narratives. Perhaps the memoir boom has gone bust, but Solnit’s book is hardly a memoir. It’s more an explorer’s exposé, a traveler’s tale, and in my book there is always room for the personal “I” on a walkabout.
Solnit is a reader of great depth and range, her “I” embedded in a world of titles and authors used as sources; they extend outward from the work itself like a system of caverns, an array of constellations, or an endless string of universes, one unfolding from another. She is particularly fond of the poets and writers of the Romantic age: Byron, Shelley, Robert Southey, and then Mary Shelley, and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft. Keep a pen and paper by your side while reading this book to make a list of the titles you’ll want to explore later.
To read The Faraway Nearby is to become subtly unhinged, to stand in a state of anxiety and awe at the boundlessness of the Earth, and of the human drama upon it. To read The Faraway Nearby is to feel a little lost — you have to keep asking: where are we now, and where are we going? And then a beacon shines in the darkness, and you find your way. Among Solnit’s great achievements is managing so much discordant and concordant information, in making the leaps and transitions from one idea to the next, in finding her way and so helping us, her readers, find ours. From the many, many pieces, you find the whole (taphonomy). But “we never tell the story whole,” writes Solnit, “because a life isn’t a story; it’s a whole Milky Way of events and we are forever picking out constellations from it to fit who and where we are.” And the truth is, to live a whole life well, sometimes you have to risk everything. Remember Ophelia after her meeting with her crazed love, Hamlet: “O, woe is me, to have seen what I have seen, see what I see!” Few writers working in memoir are capable of pulling this off, of going all the way out and making it back home. Solnit is one of them. And at risk of sounding too gushy, it is by her courageous example that her readers may, too.