IN THE LATE 1980s Rebecca Solnit took part in a series of antinuclear actions at the Nevada Test Site north of Las Vegas, trespassing onto a landscape surrounded by miles of barbed wire and laid bare by more than a thousand nuclear explosions. Her attempts to describe that austere environment, while at the same time considering its political import and trying to evade the authorities, taught her something about herself as a writer; about her need and desire to collapse the traditional categories of memoir, journalism, and criticism; to meld the distinct voices in which she had been writing into one.
It is the voice Solnit’s readers have come to expect from her: the voice of the political activist and art aficionado, the historian of the American West and Walter Benjamin devotee, the punk-inspired urbanist and Walden-inspired pastoralist, the voice of the intellectual heavyweight who speaks like one’s older, wiser sister: knowing, provocative, occasionally repetitive, implicating, compassionate, wild.
“A cultural historian in the desert-mystic mode,” one reviewer has called her. Like the desert mystics, Solnit’s writing frequently bears witness to an alternate society, in her case a society in which the actions of global corporations and national governments — often indistinguishable because they are so intertwined — are held in check by local democracies and bold experiments in civil disobedience; an alternate society in which wars are not waged for profit, and in which industry does not wage war on the geographies and ecosystems and species for which there is no resurrection from the dead. Solnit’s work both documents cataclysm and uncovers reasons for hope, as her 2004 manifesto Hope in the Dark makes explicit. Hers is a hope not always synonymous with optimism, but it is a durable hope nonetheless, arising from a belief in the possibilities wrought by human solidarity and consciousness, a contingent hope that keeps front and center the duty of individuals and communities to forge new paths together toward a contingent paradise.
I use the word paradise because she does — often and without irony. The idea of an earthly paradise, elusive but within our reach — the premise of her alternate society — has become a central motif in Solnit’s work, a problem and a possibility she keeps revisiting like a half-remembered dream. “Few speak of paradise now, except as something remote enough to be impossible,” Solnit writes in A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. “But what if paradise flashed up among us from time to time — at the worst of times?” Utopia, Arcadia, paradise, Eden. Solnit pairs these concepts with historical examples of their literal and figurative opposites — dystopia, catastrophe, ruins, darkness, Hell — finding in tragedies small and large the potential for social transformation.
She has written for Harper’s about the devolution of Detroit, a city that was once America’s fourth largest before becoming an archetype of urban decay, “so depopulated that some stretches resemble the outlying farmland and others are altogether wild.” There are still enclaves of affluence, neighborhoods and shopping districts that boast continuity with Detroit’s more prosperous past. But interspersed between them are zones so bereft as to make these symbols of economic vitality appear “dropped in by helicopter” or passed over by some strange municipal plague. Amid this post-urban landscape, however, Solnit glimpses a blueprint for salvage. Detroit’s citizens are uniquely situated to create a postindustrial green economy, a kind of Rust-Belt Arcadia, and to become an example for other deindustrialized cities when the time comes that economic survival necessitates macro-level change.
In another piece, “The Separating Sickness,” in the June issue of Harper’s, she visits the nation’s largest leprosy clinic in Baton Rouge to explore the ways the treatment of leprosy — also referred to as Hansen’s disease — has evolved to include both physical and social dimensions. With the illness itself now curable within a year or two of treatment, much of the clinic’s work revolves around teaching patients to cope with their bodies’ painlessness, a residual effect of leprosy that makes those cured of the primary disease still susceptible to further tissue damage.
What she finds is an “empathy factory,” bustling with administrators who build long-term relationships with patients, doctors and social workers who routinely touch and hug those in their care, relating to them like family rather than as outcasts. Treatment is provided free of charge. Describing the ways patients are taught to practice empathy toward themselves, “to love their own now alienated bodies as they might the body of someone else,” Solnit characteristically broadens the discussion to ask what it means to be people who often choose painlessness over empathizing with the hurts of others.
[W]e are a society that values the anesthetic over pain. We hide our prisons, our sick, our mad, and our poor; we expend colossal resources to live in padded, temperature-controlled environments that make few demands on our bodies or our minds. We come up with elaborate means of not knowing about the suffering of others and of blaming them when we do.
This distancing comes with a cost. “Choosing not to feel pain is choosing a sort of death, a withering away of the expansive self.” Solnit is making a connection between our own disinclinations to identify with others’ hardships and the condition known as peripheral neuropathy, the lack of sensation that causes those afflicted with leprosy to lose fingers, toes, feet. Apathy is a separating sickness of a different kind, she suggests, one that constricts and dehumanizes our social contracts in similar fashion. Empathy enlarges, on the other hand, through “an act of imagination, of extending yourself beyond yourself, of feeling what you do not feel innately by invoking it.”
Writings like these push Solnit’s political conscience to the foreground, drawing comparisons to Susan Sontag in her outspokenness as well as her emphasis on finding concrete ways to translate compassion into action. (She knew Sontag slightly, whose influence as a writer/activist she touches on in her essay “Sontag and Tsunami.”) Other writings, while not avoiding politics entirely, showcase a more contemplative Solnit, a writer not as preoccupied with changing the world as with penetrating beneath its surfaces, exploring its layers, losing herself in acts of discovery. The first book of hers I read cover to cover, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, belongs to this class, as does her latest and most personal to date, published this month by Viking.
The Faraway Nearby — the title derives from a salutation used by the modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe — is being marketed as a companion to that earlier book, and one characteristic they share in common is an absorption with distance. Distance as measured by time and space and memory, distance as a metaphor for emotion, as a language for describing human connections, distance as the expanse between writer and reader bridged by words. In Field Guide, along with essays on being at home in the unfamiliar, on the author’s elusive family history, on punk rock and adolescent friendship, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and the Death Valley 49ers, are four meditations on distance as color, each titled “The Blue of Distance.” “Desire is full of endless distances,” says the poet Robert Hass, quoted in the first essay of that series. Solnit, remarking on the melancholy hue of distant horizons, adds that blue “is the color of the longing for the distances you never arrive in.”
Thus, Solnit writes, the blue backdrops of 15th-century European paintings — “blue sheep, blue shepherd, blue houses, blue hills.” Thus the woman in an Isak Dinesen story, who, after being rescued from a shipwreck, spends decades collecting china, in search of the perfect shade of blue. Thus the music called the blues and its country-western cousin — the old country of Hank Sr. and Patsy Cline — both of which steep in the sadness of those who know the distance between them and the objects of their desire cannot be traversed. One talent of great essayists is their ability to uncover links between reservoirs of knowledge, and this is Solnit’s greatest gift as a writer. She has a genius for mapping the conceptual world and finding correspondences, for weaving webs of meaning from seemingly unrelated ideas, which is another way her writing becomes about distance, perceived and overcome.
The new book picks up this theme in its opening pages, as the author tells of a fraught relationship with her mother and the widening distance between them brought on by her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. Solnit is a skillful exegete of the psychological forces at play in these battles between mother and daughter, battles born partly of a mother’s envy and of a daughter’s confusion at being treated, often, like an enemy. This confusion left her childhood self emotionally frozen, unable to feel, and reading these passages one comes to suspect that Solnit’s interest in empathy predated her politics, that it began at home.
The theme of distance becomes more personal still when a mammogram reveals pre-cancerous tissue in one of her breasts. Lying on a biopsy table two weeks later, Solnit feels newly estranged from her body, as images of her breast are magnified on a monitor in black and white:
In this country, you are yourself the terrain, and you are traveling toward or away from your mortality. You do not know yourself, but must rely on expert guides and interpreters […] must grow accustomed to being laid out upon tables and invaded, described in unfamiliar language.
Such crises have a capacity to split a life in two, Solnit observes later on, to create a rupture in the psyche that may add to the present disaster, but that can also spell a new awakening. “Facts and ideas we might have heard a thousand times assume a vivid, urgent, felt reality. We knew them then, but they matter now.”
Sickness and mortality is unsurprising subject matter for a writer of personal essays at middle age. It is an age for reckoning with the abyss that is annihilation of one sort or another, and of reexamining or ratifying long-held beliefs — as Christopher Hitchens did in his final essays for Vanity Fair a couple years back — though of course the abyss can loom large at pretty much any age.
To reduce a book like this to a story about struggles with an aging parent and a cancer scare, however, is to greatly underrepresent the range of concerns, the intricacy of thought and pattern, the elegant complexity of Solnit’s narrative. The Faraway Nearby is ultimately a story about stories, those we tell ourselves and those that others tell us, so that they become a mythological compass by which we navigate from one place or relationship or stage of life to the next, often unaware of their influence. “What’s your story?” Solnit asks the reader in the book’s first sentence. And one of her more persuasive arguments is that there are countless ways of telling one’s story, and that each person retains the ability to choose how she tells her story, and that this choice can help make of one’s life a sanctuary or a prison over time. Interspersed throughout are observations on classical fairy tales and Buddhist folklore, legends of human enchantment and survival. There is a meditation on the dei ex machina or outside forces used by Greek playwrights to forward a plot. There is also a long discussion of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; its setting in the arctic fuels Solnit’s desire to visit the far north, a desire that foreshadows her months-long residency at the Library of Water in Iceland. Shelley’s novel is composed in the Russian-doll mode — a story within a story within a story — and this narrative strategy becomes a rubric for reading the vast quantity of stories Solnit puts down here.
Another rubric is that of a labyrinth, a network of passages one explores to gain insight, entering and exiting at the same place. Chapter titles in the first half of The Faraway Nearby recur in the second, but in opposite order: “Apricots,” “Mirrors,” “Ice,” becomes “Ice,” “Mirrors,” “Apricots,” suggesting a pilgrimage through terrain already visited, now seen from a different vantage point. The center of the labyrinth, the event that splits the journey and the book in two, comes during the operation to remove that pre-cancerous tissue, in a chapter titled “Knot.” The passage displays Solnit’s talent as a prose stylist, her facility with metaphor.
There was a continuity that was my breath since birth, and the anesthesiologist cut that, tied a knot in it, put me on monitors and respirators, then started a new thread, and while I was stopped, the continuity that was my skin was cut, and I was altered, and then sewn shut with thread and knots. There are a thousand stories in which someone falls asleep or wanders off to fairyland and comes back unchanged to find that years, decades, centuries have passed, but surgical anesthesia is the opposite adventure: you go to sleep for what seems a moment, and when you wake up everything is the same except yourself. You have been severed from who you were when you went in and stitched to another destiny and body, saved or maimed or both.
Running beneath the body of text in this book like a TV news crawler, page to page, chapter to chapter — her book Wanderlust uses the same device, though a bit differently — is a single line of italicized prose, the thread of an essay unspooling like the red thread given to Theseus in Greek mythology to aid his escape from the Labyrinth in Crete. And so this story that is a labyrinth becomes like these things too: a piece of thread unwinding from a spool; a spool of words and sentences that is a book unwinding to make a single line. A line, a thread, a labyrinth, a path for traveling.
If I were to lodge a complaint about the book’s construction, it’s that here or there the idea of traveling through a labyrinth becomes a too convenient excuse for digression. One marvels at Solnit’s dexterity, the way she finds connections between almost anything; she considers everything — as she wrote of Sontag — “a proper occasion for more thinking, more analyzing, more writing.” Indeed, one reaches the end of many Solnit essays with a sense that the piece could stretch on indefinitely, that the author’s flow of ideas or her knowledge of the subject has not been depleted so much as just tied off. Still, as in our personal relationships, a quality worth appreciating in someone becomes at certain moments only something you endure. And even that which fascinates can fatigue.
This is the case in The Faraway Nearby when in the space of a page Solnit pings from, say, a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” to observations about cold and heat in games such as Blindman’s Bluff, to a discussion of the Buddha’s Fire Sutra and Buddhism’s cool detachment. Or when she sets a hook at the end of chapter two by saying yes to an invitation to visit Iceland, then wanders away from that particular story for a chapter and a half while unraveling her long disquisition on Mary Shelley and the events surrounding Shelley’s famous literary creation, plus shorter commentaries on the Tang dynasty artist Wu Daozi, the Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons, the Easter Island peoples’ birdman cult, and the chronicles of Narnia. And Iceland? the reader wonders.
To her credit, Solnit usually succeeds at making these intervening topics, placed in relationship with each other, enlarge the world for the reader. Comparisons can be made to W.G. Sebald’s fictional travelogue The Rings of Saturn — its expansiveness, its reliance on forceful, poetic exposition over scene, its historical memory, its undercurrent of loss, and yes, its meandering — the way sidepaths connect, but only slightly. Each book contains passages of astonishing insight and lyricism. And in each the author’s gift for mapping correspondences has its liability. Even as one aims to savor the journey more than a sense of arrival — “the quest [itself] is the holy grail,” Solnit insists — at times one grows impatient, the author’s wandering tempting the reader’s mind to wander off, while waiting for the narrative circuit to close, for the answer to the question, What happens next?
This is one burden of The Faraway Nearby, this need to wander while also creating a narrative continuity over many chapters — rather than organizing Solnit’s thought into more discrete essays, as in Field Guide, an approach that perhaps succeeds more because the reader needs less; a collection of stand-alone or linked essays accommodates Solnit’s desire to roam but also partitions it, rounds it off. The reader relaxes into these excursions, without that small interior voice chirping for an update to the larger plot.
On balance, though, this newest book is riveting, and one finally esteems its author for her privileging of complexity over and against tidiness. For her enormous ambition. For the ways her intellect matches her enormous ambition. For her language. And for the distances she travels in pursuit of wisdom and of questions big enough that they can only be answered with our lives. Rebecca Solnit remains one of our finest nonfiction writers. As with her work generally, The Faraway Nearby is an important text for those who wish to think deeply about the act of becoming, on an individual and a collective scale. It is a text that reminds us we are each storytellers, each stories, whether we often recognize that fact or not. It’s a book detailing an odyssey that doesn’t end at the exit, but carries through, into a world still fashioned by human creativity and volition. A world much larger than we remembered.
During that experience years ago at the Nevada Test Site, Solnit met Richard Misrach, a landscape photographer whose art would inspire her own. As she explained later, Misrach’s work “challenged us to feel the conflicts of being fully present in a complicated world.” Reading The Faraway Nearby, we can be grateful for a writer who keeps doing the same.