One day not so long ago, Rebecca Solnit found herself with an apricot problem. Her mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and about a hundred pounds of the fruit had been harvested from a tree in the yard of the home where her mother could no longer live, then deposited—fragrant and overripe—on the floor of Solnit’s bedroom. “There they presided for some days, a story waiting to be told, a riddle to be solved, and a harvest to be processed.” With this seemingly simple story, Solnit opens a door into a maze of stories within stories, a dreamlike memoir composed of fairy tales, literary criticism, history, philosophy, and aphorism that takes us from Solnit’s living room all the way to Iceland and back. Her most intimate work to date, the book traces a difficult time in Solnit’s life, as she endured her mother’s descent into the fog of Alzheimer’s, the death of a close friend, and her own struggle with breast cancer. Taking a cue from Buddhism, which “takes change as a given and suffering as the inevitable consequence of attachment and then asks what you are going to do about it,” Solnit launches into an investigation of storytelling that helps her write her way toward something like solace.
Solnit has been compared to both Susan Sontag and Annie Dillard, though her writing is more lyrical and oblique than Sontag’s and her engagement with nature more overtly political than Dillard’s. In The Faraway Nearby, her idiosyncratic style of argument by analogy and imaginative association brings Mary Shelley, Napoleon, revolutionary monks in Myanmar, and many others into a work that is part memoir and part cultural criticism, exploring the ways we create and re-create the self.
Solnit borrows the story-within-a-story structure (as well as a central metaphor) from The Thousand and One Nights. Each chapter title—“Apricots,” “Mirrors,” “Ice”—serves as a spindle around which the threads of multiple stories are wound. After the central chapter, “Knot,” the titles repeat in reverse until we finally arrive back to “Apricots.” Solnit signals this reverse with titles at the middle of the book—“Wound,” “Knot,” “Unwound”—and in a stirring account of navigating a labyrinth constructed by Icelandic artist Elín Hansdóttir. Throughout the book, an additional chapter appears as a single line of text strung along the bottom of each page, like a thread (or suture, or sutra), binding these stories together. This chapter is a meditation on the sentence “Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds,” which Solnit reads from so many angles you lose sight of whether she is finding meaning or making it—or what the difference might be. Altogether, the book’s dizzying architecture is both disorienting and grounding, like walking in a prayer labyrinth, a circle composed of a single zigzagging path that leads from the outer ring to the center and back out. Following the path can make you feel utterly lost, even as you know there is only one way forward.
As you may remember, Scheherazade was a woman who had to tell (or spin) stories in order to stay alive, and Solnit is interested in how each of us, in turn, tells stories to live. Echoing Scheherazade, she says,
Listen: you are not yourself, you are crowds of others, you are as leaky a vessel as was ever made, you have spent vast amounts of your life as someone else. . . . The usual I we are given has all the tidy containment of the kind of character the realist novel specializes in and none of the porousness of our every waking moment, the loose threads.
But Scheherazade was also a woman who chose to put herself in harm’s way, to marry a murderous sultan in order to save the lives of other women. Similarly, Solnit spins these interconnected tales to save herself—from loneliness, from loss—and to suggest ways readers, too, might save themselves. To this end, she weaves her story of emotional awakening into other stories of spiritual, psychological, and political awakenings, from Che Guevara to Siddhartha, demonstrating how the art of storytelling can inspire understanding. As she writes, “Empathy means that you travel out of yourself a little or expand. It’s really recognizing the reality of another’s existence that constitutes the imaginative leap that is the birth of empathy, a word invented by a psychologist interested in visual art. . . . Suffering far away reaches you through art, through images, recordings, and narratives; the information travels toward you and you meet it halfway, if you meet it.” That art can inspire empathy and ease human suffering may not sound like news, but Solnit’s memoir is rarely in the news business. Her achievement here lies in how she demonstrates this old truth in a new way.
This book offers all the surprises and pleasures of Solnit’s discursive style—turn a corner and you may find princesses or polar bears—but occasionally you may lose sight of why you are reading. Many of the stories here contain insight that ripens slowly, by association, coming to fruition only near the end of the book. By then, the apricots have been preserved in glass jars and in a golden liqueur, transformed into a metaphor for Solnit’s reckoning with mortality, as well as for the ways art confronts the passage of time.
The Faraway Nearby is the product of a remarkable mind at work, one able to weave a magnificent number of threads into a single story, demonstrating how all our stories are interconnected.
Meehan Crist, writer-in-residence in biological sciences at Columbia University, is working on a nonfiction book about traumatic brain injury.