The Faraway Nearby
Hardback: Viking, 2013.
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Reviewed by Denise Frame Harlan.
Rebecca Solnit says in The Faraway Nearby, “time itself is our tragedy and most of us are fighting some kind of war against it.”
As her mother deteriorates with Alzheimer’s, author Rebecca Solnit inherits the last fruits from her mother’s tree: a hundred pounds of “unstable” apricots. “The apricots were a riddle I had to decipher, a tale whose meaning I had to make over the course of the next twelve months as almost everything went wrong.” Some apricots spoil and some ripen, while Solnit contemplates impossible tasks, lost daughters, complicated mothers. Just as she seems poised to address one part of the riddle, another part collapses. “I got asked over and over …whether she still recognized me. Recognition can mean so many things, and in some sense she had never known who I was.” Like many adults with ailing parents. Solnit reckons with too much challenge, too little time, and problems too confounding, yet her life fills with odd beauties and moments of grace—enough for her to survive.
While she considers methods to preserve these last fruits, she examines the way Scheherezade preserves her life by storytelling in The Arabian Nights, drawing a labyrinth of one tale inside another as a way to stave off time and murderous rage. These stories work the same way, tangling strange story lines into one another until no single thread can be pulled loose.
If storytelling can preserve a life from ruin, Solnit learns early to disappear into reading “like running into the woods.” The ways readers vanish like The Roadrunner cartoons, like the Chinese legend Wu Daozi, these disappearances are the art of a child who knew she was alone, who fed herself by “taking in words in huge quantities… gorging on books, fasting on speech, carrying piles of books home from the library.” By training herself in the solitude of the reader, the writer writes her way into “the faraway nearby,” a place in which a reader meets the writer, “in an act that is so intimate and yet so alone.” She describes this miraculous connection, when the writer says “to anyone and no one the things that cannot be said to someone,” and the effect for Solnit is “[l]ike digging a hole to China, and actually emerging on the other side, writing took me all the way through to connect with people again… “ She finds her readers in real life, by providence, and they become real-life guides and hosts in her travels.
Somehow the apricots become the outer shell in a series of Russian dolls, each layer nesting into the previous layers, each metaphor real and vivid: ice and Iceland, mirrors and mothers, breath and survival, jam and wine. In a braided memoir, a writer twines two or three threads together, but Solnit explores a dozen themes, each thread inextricable from the whole. While the structure seems elegant, the writing never loses that real-life feeling that everything might fall apart at any moment.
This is the kind of story that couldn’t be fictionalized.
Another thread pulls the whole series of labyrinths together: a single lyric essay strings across the bottom edge of the book’s pages, like a footnote-essay, beginning with the words, “Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds.” This tiny essay caused me to quickly turn every single page until I reached the end, breathless. When I finished reading the body of the book, I sped through that footnote-narrative once again. Like the arc-shaped table of contents, in a lesser book this could seem heavy-handed, gimmicky. But for Rebecca Solnit, this is a reader’s rush, a piece of run-on genius. Once you’ve opened the book, how will you not read this moth/bird/tears story first? Once you’ve turned every single page with a sort of wild affection, how will you not read every word between those covers?
While Rebecca Solnit tells stories to save a life, stories about preserving apricots in desperation, about surviving when the basics of life are falling apart, The Faraway Nearby also shows how running away brings us back to ourselves, how the power of stories can destroy as well as heal. Her crafted prose is sometimes reminiscent of Annie Dillard—subtle word choices foreshadow later events, and her focus on the natural world makes the reader look more carefully, with a greater sense of wonder. Rebecca Solnit ends with a jar of bottled apricots, timeless and unopened on her table, years after her mother’s death. It’s a book about almost everything important, and it’s one of the most satisfying books I’ve read in the past decade. I can’t wait to read the whole thing again, to enter the solitude of that faraway nearby.