The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit
Viking, 2013; 259 pp
Reviewed by Clinton Crockett Peters
“Where does a story begin? The fiction is that they do, and end, rather than that the stuff of a story is just a cup of water scooped from the sea and poured back into it” (27).
In several of her books, Rebecca Solnit has flowed inside the vein of Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams and others in that her personal ruminations employ awareness and comprehension of historical and ecological forces. Like these other three authors, Solnit isn't afraid of a library, scrounging the catacombs and microfilms to illuminate her searches. Solnit's work, such as Field Guide to Getting Lost, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and this, The Faraway Nearby, often reads as classic essaying, the discursive, eloquent rambling around a central point or question. This is the Michel de Montaigne mussing discourse on a subject, usually an idea, where both the personal and extrinsic dance and pair.
Solnit is not the quirky genius of Dillard but is, perhaps, more vulnerable than Lopez. The stage for this book is her mother's dying, which in a lesser writer's hands would appear mopey and fetishized. Instead, the slow disintegration is a jumping off point. The chapters/essays do not circle around the death like a draining pool with its inevitable conclusion. Instead, the aging process, the slow dissipation into old age, Alzheimer's and living oblivion, is used as a connect for the musings that follow. The book’s structure is one of a bird in flight, with chapter’s mirroring each other, focusing around the head essay, “Knot,” and so, in a sense, the work becomes a detangling.
The book floats around a number of subjects, from the thousands of apricots Solnit inherits all at once, a trip to Iceland, the photographer Subhankar Banerjee, Frankenstein, Che Guevara, and many others, Solnit stitches the fabric of an essay about entwinement. The underlying investigation seems to be how there can be here. Iceland, a nether world, is but a plane ticket away. Death, the grand end, after all, surrounds us, transforms us. Rot is just the feasting of countless lives. Yet something so close as a parent can remain a mystery forever.
“You can be a thousand miles from the person next to you in bed or deeply invested in the survival of a stranger on the other side of the world” (108).
Empathy then, is what draws things together, Solnit suggests. This is the curiously powerful emotive state that brings the populations of different continents, even different times, even the imagination, right into our fluttering hearts. Solnit admirably attempts to follow those knotted strands.