The Faraway Nearby

The Faraway Nearby

Rebecca Solnit 
New York: Viking, 2013. 259 pages, hardcover, $25.95.

Reading sometimes offers a chance to tag along on an author's dark journey of the soul. As you proceed on a descent into the underworld, a straightforward and leisurely path all at once turns serpentine, then braids off into obscurity. You arrive in the midst of a shadowy wood and dismal night, no destination discernible. Panthers and wolves lurk in the gloom. You consider retracing your steps, starting over, but even this course leads to an impasse of doubt. Finally, you arrive at a sea of despair. Yet perseverance furthers. In the case of Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby, the reader is led into a literary labyrinth, only to discover "that in order to get to your destination you must turn away from it."

Solnit, an accomplished essayist in the tradition of Michel de Montaigne, describes this, her fourteenth book, as a "history of an emergency and the stories that kept me company." She is drawn to reading fairy tales for the "impossible tasks" the heroes must perform. "Enchantment in these stories is the state of being disguised, displaced in an animal's body or another's identity. Disenchantment is the blessing of becoming yourself." Over the course of the book, Solnit's attention roams where it will,through the spacious fields of history, religion, politics, and literature,establishing a compelling tension between these borrowed truths and the direct truth of her own experience as a writer, a daughter, a medical patient, and a traveler in the wider world. Her license is the authority of her prose.

The Faraway Nearby opens with the arrival of a hundred pounds of apricots on the narrator's doorstep, three big boxes of them delivered from a tree in her mother's yard. The mother at this point has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Her children, particularly the daughter-writer, are suffering the all-too-familiar trials of caregiving for an elderly parent, including finding her a new and secure home even as they prepare to sell the old one. "I thought of my mother as a book coming apart," Solnit writes, "pages drifting away, phrases blurring, letters falling off, the page returning to pure white, a book disappearing from the back because the newest memories faded first, and nothing was being added." As if the stress and strain of attending to a failing parent were not enough, Solnit herself receives a cancer diagnosis and he points out the many ways people undermine intimacy and often get tangled up in self-defeating, dysfunctional relationships. The only problem in this argument is that Buddhists are more interested in dissolving or altogether eliminating ego than making it more functional! While Amodeo's sentiment is appealing, he doesn't sufficiently take into account the differences between Eastern meditation and Western psychology. The latter aims to heal or at least improve relations (attachments) between people, while the former seeks to transcend desire through nonattachment. Psychological intimacy brings us closer to satisfying our ego desires,a better marriage, security, forgiveness. Buddhists, on the other hand, have their sights set on transcending life. I agree that meditators should not alienate themselves or avoid others using meditation, but augmenting a Buddhist practice with psychological techniques that emphasize somatic and emotional experience confuses spiritual and psychological paradigms by putting at odds their respective goals. Buddhists use meditation as a means of dissolving the subject-object relationship to experience samadhi, a state of pure awareness. Using this spiritual method, they seek to be liberated from this world of suffering. is suddenly propelled into what she laconically calls "my medical adventure." The collapse of physical health long taken for granted lands her in "the country of the ill."

The turning point in The Faraway Nearby comes with an unexpected invitation to visit Iceland. Yet the narrative takes considerable time in arriving there. Along the way, Solnit leads the reader across a wide range of subjects, including meditations on the nature of storytelling, the virtues of Buddhism, and the calamities now facing polar bears, just to name a few. Those readers who prefer that memoir take a less errant course in achieving its purposes may find these excursions distracting or even irrelevant. I for one did not, and as the author herself points out more than once, when it comes to the task of assaying one's experience, "the route is seldom direct."

Indeed, a kind of subterranean chapter runs across the bottom of the book's pages, requiring the reader at the end to go back to the first page and follow this new thread across each of the book's 259 pages. In both form and function, the essay that unfurls here serves as a poetic reprise of the book's main themes.

As Solnit makes amply clear right from the start, "stories are compasses." Our lives are guided by them, for good or for ill. Not only are happy endings unlikely, there may not be any endings at all, at least none that are clearcut. "Essayists too," she reflects in the book's closing pages, "face the temptation of a neat ending, that point when you bring the boat to shore and tie it to the dock and give up the wide sea." Again, some readers might find such open-endedness discomfiting. Others, and I include myself among this lot,take refuge in having a chance to try it all again, to bring the boat about toward open waters, and see what might be in the offing.

John P. O'Grady

John P. O'Grady is the author of Grave Goods: Essays of a Peculiar Nature and Pilgrims to the Wild (both published by University of Utah Press). He lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York.