The Faraway Nearby, By Rebecca Solnit, Viking, 259 pp., $25.95
In Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1938 painting From the Faraway, Nearby, a many-antlered skull seems to rest on the slope of a far-off mountain. Like much of O’Keeffe’s work, this piece ignores the middle distance. By juxtaposing the very close and the very far, she asks viewers to see, to really see, what would normally be passed over—a flower, a broken skull, a shell from the shore—and to frame that attention with the possibilities of the horizon. O’Keeffe’s art, her creativity, arose in the far away, a place she continually sought. In the exacting attention to the near, however, O’Keeffe knew she could arrest the gaze of her viewers, make them “see what I see.”
Rebecca Solnit, author of 13 previous books of nonfiction that center on art, politics, and the environment, is engaged in a similar project of seeing in her latest book, The Faraway Nearby. Through a series of closely linked essays, she offers readers a tale within a tale within a tale ranging from her mother’s dementia to Che Guevara, Frankenstein, and the color white. Like Scheherazade’s Thousand and One Nights, the stories that Solnit threads together pulse with the urgency of a woman trying to save her life. The book arises from an emergency, or a series of emergencies—her mother’s removal to a facility for people with dementia, the end of a relationship, and Solnit’s own battle with cancer. This confluence of events threatens Solnit’s understanding of her life, the map she has long followed. Rather than move inward toward self-pity and isolation, she moves outward toward others. Much as she did in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Solnit uses moments from her own life as springboards to larger questions. “One of the arts of perspective,” she tells us early on, “is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you … to tell stories rather than be told by them.”
Empathy is the path she follows out of the autumn of her unmaking. And empathy begins with story—“to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.” Solnit enters others’ stories and brings them near to us. We watch as monks immolate themselves in Burma, as a two-year-old is pulled from a well, as a man suffocates in the ice cave of his own breath. In each essay, Solnit finds the humanity that allows a stranger—the reader, the writer—to connect, and in connecting, to become enlarged. We see, really see, what is brought close to us, and we can’t help but care. What is most captivating about the stories Solnit tells, though, is not their many-antlered details but how from a distance they are all connected. She writes, “A meandering line sutures together the world in some new way, as though walking was sewing and sewing was telling a story and that story was your life.” Every story told becomes a metaphor for Solnit’s life and for our own. The pattern charts a journey out of suffering.
Ultimately the book’s form is Solnit’s most compelling argument for the powers of empathy. In her wide-ranging narrative, everything connects—Frankenstein, Yoko Ono, Iceland, a premature baby who lives, a good friend who doesn’t. They connect because they first connected inside Solnit herself. What Solnit offers us, I think, is the future of memoir. Not the story of the self—after all, she says, “my own story in its particulars hardly interests me now”—but the ways in which one’s story opens into other stories, stories that can be followed, sat with, explored. In meeting those other stories, your own becomes understood. “Empathy is a journey you travel,” Solnit tells us, and then she shows us in great detail what you find if you are willing to take that journey and pay attention.
Solnit’s latest book is a deeply moving account of why we create—why we make stories, why we write, paint, draw, photograph, preserve, and store. It is full of contradictions, knots that won’t easily come undone. But Solnit isn’t interested in the knotting. She is interested in the thread itself. “What if we only wanted openings,” she muses toward the end of her book, “the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door, and the open sea?” The answer, we realize, is the very book we hold in our hands: a book of our wounds and the threads that are wrapped around us. The Faraway Nearby is a complicated telling that never shows its seams. Literary nonfiction doesn’t get more beautiful and compelling.