ANGELES ó Rebecca Solnitís latest book, "The
Faraway Nearby" (Viking: 260 pp., $25.95), began
with a delivery of 100 pounds of apricots.
was like a trumpet blew and said, ĎYouíre entering
the world of narrative," the 52-year-old author
recalls by phone from her home in San Franciscoís
Mission District, her voice soft as falling petals, her
laugh a whisper on the wire.
apricots came from her brother, who had collected them
from a tree in their motherís yard. At the time, the
older woman was in the throes of Alzheimerís; she had
been moved into an assisted care facility, making the
fruit a metaphor, an allegory, for everything that she,
that the family, had lost.
large measure, Solnit suggests, this had to do with the
stories by which her mother had lived. Some were
positive and some were negative, such as the one that
said her daughter was a rival, an inverse image
highlighting everything she was not.
motherís real problem," she recalls, "was
not with me but with the enormous baggage of stories
that had come between us. When Alzheimerís took those
away, it was as if she began to see me for the first
Faraway Nearby" is a book about storytelling, with
a parallel inquiry into empathy. On the first page,
Solnit appropriates Joan Didionís famous line "We
tell ourselves stories in order to live," although
she quickly adds: "or to justify taking lives, even
our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to
many ways, thatís classic Solnit, to take what sounds
like conventional wisdom and reframe it on her own
terms. Her books are wide-ranging, engaged examinations
of themes ó walking, urbanism, the way we interact
with disaster ó through a highly idiosyncratic lens.
is what used to be known as a public intellectual, an
essayist defined by her ability to connect the dots
between seemingly disparate ideas. Her best-known work,
"River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the
Technological Wild West," won a 2004 National Book
Critics Circle Award for its investigation of post-Civil
War California, and its influence on the technological
society we all now occupy.
Faraway Nearby" operates in something of a similar
fashion, linking a dizzying series of narratives, both
public and private, from the "Arabian Nights"
to "Frankenstein" to Che Guevaraís "The
Motorcycle Diaries" while telling us something
about who we are and how we come together, or how we
book is constructed as an elaborate palindrome, with 13
chapters that double back on one another, although
Solnit prefers to see it as a mirror structure, or even
a set of nested stories, not unlike Russian dolls.
"There are a lot of little echoes," she
explains. "That gave me a chance to let things
reverberate and repeat."
use of "Frankenstein," for instance, is
reflected by the saga of an Inuit woman who ate the
bodies of her family after being stranded on the tundra;
both involve reanimation, resurrection even, and both
remind us just how closely death and life are linked.
Solnit (with whom, full disclosure, I share a literary
agent), thatís a key point, since one of the central
threads of "The Faraway Nearby" has to do with
her health: specifically, preventative breast cancer
surgery. Throughout the book, she remains deliberately
vague about her condition, describing the treatment if
not quite the diagnosis, preferring to focus on being a
patient instead of disease and cure.
wanted to write about the experience of it," she
says, "not the details. I felt that if people knew
exactly what was going on, they could say, ĎThatís
not me, thatís her,í and stop paying attention. But
by leaving out that information, I was able to write not
about breast cancer surgery, but about the boundaries of
the self. They became blurry in a really interesting
Solnitís talking about is how stories allow us to
inhabit each otherís lives with unexpected depth. This
is the secret lesson of "The Faraway Nearby,"
which has at its core the faith that we are all of us in
it (whatever it is) with one another.
think we keep each other company in some profound
way," Solnit says, recalling that, during her
convalescence, friends shared their own scars and
ailments, "the most intimate secrets about their
bodies": the sorts of revelations we are taught to
treat with shame.
learn from therapy," she continues, "to tell
stories in a way thatís lonely: Look what happened to
me. .... But I think stories are inherently empathetic,
that we give ourselves these things, and see each other
STORY CAN END HERE)
the heart of this idea is generosity, which can be a
tough sell in a culture such as ours. "(A)sking,"
Solnit writes, "is difficult for a lot of people.
Itís partly because we imagine that gifts put us in
the giverís debt, and debt is supposed to be a bad
thing. You see it in the way people sometimes try to
reciprocate immediately out of a sense that indebtedness
is a burden. But there are gifts people yearn to give
and debts that tie us together."
"The Faraway Nearby" argues that we are
defined by what we give one another, beginning with what
we say about our lives. "We live in an age thatís
so overwhelming," Solnit suggests, "itís
almost impossible not to shut down. Just think about the
volume of emails you get every day, everything thatís
pulling at your attention all the time."
yet, we always have a choice about how, and whether, to
reach out or go consciously numb. "We have to
choose to do the work of involving ourselves in the
information," she argues. "We have the sense
that our skin is the edge of the self, but empathy
extends those edges. It makes you a bigger person, more
able to feel."
some sense, "The Faraway Nearby" seeks to
embody just this impulse, to be personal without being
memoiristic, to set its most intimate material within
the framework of the larger world. The experiences
Solnit shares ó her motherís Alzheimerís, her own
breast cancer scare ó are important less in their own
right than as part of a tapestry composed out of
everything sheís ever thought or read.
funny," she says, "a conventional memoir about
breast cancer or a parentís deterioration would
include tons of information, but there wasnít a reason
to give a lot of that here." Rather, what she has
written is a book about the psychic space of living, in
which the most essential details are the most elusive,
the ones that hint at how we feel.
apricot incident is a case in point, reverberating
throughout "The Faraway Nearby" as "a
riddle to be solved." Or, as she writes in the
closing pages: "Those apricots my brother brought
me in three big cardboard boxes long ago, were they
tears too? And this book, is it tears?"