For many in my generation, living and breathing amidst the colonial ruins and ebbing pride of Calcutta, Amitav Ghosh was the first writer in English to write about the everyday life that we lived. The first writer to write of the streets we took, the bookstores we shopped in, the distinguished poverty we lived in, in the language in which we weren’t accustomed to reading of these things.
His life and mine began mere miles apart. But he, with his Booker near-misses, his Oxford doctorate, his immersive prose and me with my lying on a bed and staring at the ceiling fan, have had rather parallel lives.
When I first touched his The Shadow Lines, I did not know who he was. I was 15 years old, it was a summer afternoon and I was rummaging in the one room of the attic of our rented home that held all our stuff. The book had no cover and its first 12 pages were missing. It lay open, underneath things that had been moved from house to house as we moved along with them.
It had been hurriedly put down. I imagined an aunt or an uncle reading it and then being called away. I imagined her shoving the book into the last box, assured that she would open it in the new house soon. I imagined the boxes getting comfortable in the rented rooms that grew increasingly smaller, and us losing the need to open those that held non-essential things. In 1945, my young grandparents had walked from what is now Bangladesh to what is now Bengal, as the British prepared to partition India. Since then, till about 2007, our family lived in one rented home after another. In its crowded home in a cardboard box, where it shared space with terra cotta dolls, Bengali translations of The Rig Veda, and the blankets that were meant to cushion blows to the fragile things, The Shadow Lines, with its dog ears and its maddening old smell, was the very Calcutta refugee that it speaks of in its own pages.
I read with the joy of a reader who had so far only read the English literature of the English. Ghosh was not writing the Calcutta of the colonisers, the Calcutta of the north with its lofty crumbling houses belonging to the Queen’s viceroys and their good friends; he was writing the south Calcutta where I lived, the south Calcutta where refugees from Bangladesh—like my grandparents had been and like the narrator’s grandmother had been—landed.
I did not know what a seminal text it had already become in postcolonial literature as I read it, but I remember the first feeling of oneness. Delirious, I wrote to Ghosh through the “Contact” page on his website. “I have been forever changed thanks to your book. My own grandmother is the same woman you have spoken of in Shadow Lines. [And then, in a leap of audacity] I have to ask you if you once had a grandmother who was like this.” Ghosh replied, “Dear Soumashree, thank you for writing to me. I am happy that the book resonated with you.”
The door to the dark underbelly of joy at an author’s acknowledgement had been opened.
As that summer gave way to the next, the newspapers filled with previews of Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, the first in his Ibis trilogy. By then I had read three more books by Ghosh—The Hungry Tide, The Calcutta Chromosome, and Dancing in Cambodia—and he had become one of the writers whom I would regard as a personal literary trainer.
On July 10, 2008, I was browsing a bookstore in a south Calcutta mall when I noticed that Sea of Poppies was to be released on that evening by Ghosh himself. It was mid-afternoon then and the book release was scheduled at 7 p.m. Seven p.m. was also exactly the hour at which my mathematics tutor would arrive at my house. I went home and fell prostrate at my mother’s two feet.
My mother, the staunch disciplinarian, told me that not only was I allowed to cook up a story for my absence at the math class, but that she would come with me to the book release too.
The sun set on the glorious day and my mother and I caught a yellow taxi to go to the mall. On the way, I called my math teacher.
“Miss, I am very sorry, but I will be a little late today.”
“Why, what is the matter?”
“It is my eye, miss, I have had to come to the doctor.”
“What happened to your eye?”
“My left eye has developed a blind patch. I cannot see through the patch, though my vision is okay for the rest of the eye.”
“Oh. Okay. Yes, sure. Absolutely.”
We arrived on time and just as I was paying for the book, Ghosh entered the bookstore with his wife, the writer Deborah Baker. He looked tired, his shoulders drooping, but who cared, this was the first time I was seeing a writer I had loved in the flesh.
There was a short reading from the book, and as the compere read out an exchange from one of the first few pages of the hardcover, Ghosh stared into the distance with a frown on his face.
At last, the crowd was asked to queue for the signings. Ghosh rummaged in his pocket for a second and brought out a metal pen. The stage was set.
I noticed that everyone was saying something to Ghosh to which he was gently nodding and responding to. I briefly mulled over the line, “The character Mangala Bibi from The Calcutta Chromosome still wakes me up at nights,” but decided against it, in what was singularly the only occasion where I have looked before I leapt.
The woman in front of me spelt her name out for him, “J-I-N-I-A.”
“Oh, what a beautiful name, is there a particular reason behind it?” asked Ghosh.
“I don’t know, my father just like the flower I think,” she said.
“Oh, haha,” said Ghosh.
“Can you mention the date, please, sir?” she said.
“Of course, of course.”
Next was I. Before Ghosh even opened to the page, I had said, “Good evening, sir, my name is Soumashree. S-O-U-M-A-S-H-R-E-E” in one breath.
Ghosh looked wearily at me and then said, “S-O-U?”
In two seconds it was over. So I clutched at the only straw available.
“Sir, can you put in the date please, sir?”
He had already closed the book.
“Thank you so much.”
I returned to my mother, standing at a distance, brandishing the book half expecting people in the mall and on the streets to come running up to me to check out the signed copy. Once home, I ambled into my room where my teacher was hunched over the table, asleep.
“How do you feel?” asked miss.
“Much better,” I said and sighed.
I read Sea of Poppies, turning often to the first signed page. It was rich and homely—a Bengali book written in English.
Exactly two years later, on the same day, I would enter my university’s famed English department. Once inside, I read Amitav Ghosh with renewed vigour in classes where The Hungry Tide was taught with Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, where passages of In an Antique Land made our professor’s voice quiver, and where The Shadow Lines returned in classes devoted to the larger narrative of nation formation and rupture.
I was deep into the tumult of daily college life when the second part of the Ibis trilogy, River of Smoke, was upon us in 2011. This book, too, was to release in the same bookstore at the same mall. This time, I noticed from the newspaper ads that Ghosh was to speak in at least three other city venues during the concentrated time period in which he was stopping at Calcutta while touring the country with the book.
It had rained heavily on the day, and when I reached the bookstore after a robust fight with my boyfriend, it was entirely full. Ghosh would be in conversation with the maverick Rimi B. Chatterjee—a novelist and my writing professor at university. This time I knew most of the crowd assembled. Classmates, professors, lecturers, friends who studied literature in other colleges, and my boyfriend all milled about in a spirit of great celebration while we waited for Ghosh.
He eventually arrived, looking tired. A classmate whispered, “I almost feel bad that he has to sign so many copies now.” A discussion ensued. A more lively and interactive one than the one in 2008, but a discussion which Chatterjee had to repeatedly maneuver back to the topic of the book, thanks to the garrulous Calcuttan’s natural inclination to begin a long, winding lecture whenever a microphone is handed to him. At the end of a young man’s nervous but long-winded account of how he felt Ghosh should have navigated the boatman’s experience in The Hungry Tide better, the audience had grown agitated and murmured dissent. Ghosh was unperturbed. He had a slight frown but he thanked the man for his opinion and answered him at length.
When the magic hour of the book signings arrived, the bookstore staff handed us small pieces of paper.
“Write your name on it.”
I willingly wrote all 16 letters of my full name on it before realizing that the paper was to act as reference for Ghosh as he signed our names on the books. They would speed the process and eliminate the ordeal of him having to figure out the hurriedly announced spellings of our names over the din.
When my turn came, I handed him the paper and he unquestioningly wrote down my whole name on the book. I remember thinking if he remembers writing the same name down years ago, and then thinking of all the names that he has had to write in the meantime.
“Do you study in college?” he abruptly asked.
“I…yes,” I stammered, looking around wildly for a professor to substantiate this.
“Oh. Where?” Ghosh asked.
“At Jadavpur,” I barely replied.
“Oh. Good,” said Ghosh, looking in Chatterjee’s direction, acknowledging my need to have a professor verify my presence.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Well, thank you,” he replied.
I showed my boyfriend the book. The next morning, we spotted ourselves in photographs of the book release that were published in newspapers.
Time flew, I got two degrees in English literature and moved to Bangalore to work as a journalist for the tabloid pages of an English daily. Tabloid it was, but within its pages, headlined by only the most conventionally beautiful of women, it had detailed theatre reviews, culture pages, and no fewer than a weekly 1,000 words devoted to literature. I did not like my job and its only perk was these book and theatre stories that we got to write. I wrote these with a lot of vigor, but as a new entrant into the city’s tabloid circle, I never quite got into the groove of receiving the first promotional email of any event and was routinely beaten to the juicy book reviews and theatre previews by my colleagues.
One Wednesday in June 2015, my boss suddenly asked, “Do you want to interview Amitav Ghosh day after tomorrow?”
“His Flood of Fire is releasing and I had not noticed the email,” she said. “I will forward it to you. Make sure you read some of his work before going.”
I festered in silence. The email entered my inbox. I called the contact it mentioned at Penguin Random House, Ghosh’s publisher.
“It’s a bit late in the day, isn’t it?” she said.
“I know, but I was just delegated the interview,” I said.
“Take this guy Varun’s number. He’s in charge of the interviews,” she said.
I called this guy Varun.
“Your newspaper’s Chennai office is doing an interview for the national Sunday page review already,” he said.
“I was hoping to speak with him about his particular experience of Bangalore,” I lied.
“Well, that’ll be difficult. Amitav is not doing very well, he is rather ill, so even if I could have squeezed you in under normal circumstances, I don’t think I’ll be able to do that now,” he said.
I almost laughed in relief.
“I understand. Please give him my best.”
“Thanks a lot for being so easy to convince, Soumashree. Please do come at the book launch event.”
“Oh sure, I will.”
The pressure lifted. What questions could I frame for a 10-minute long interview with Ghosh? What questions need one ask the custodian of one’s literary consciousness?
The next day, I went to the boss and told her that we had missed securing a slot in a day’s interactions with Ghosh.
“Do try to go for the evening launch tomorrow, though,” the editor said.
I opened the email again and stared at the location. It was in an atrium at a five-star hotel at the center of the city. Having edited the “Party” pages of the newspaper and attended one too many nightly events where Bangalore’s “it” crowd converged to be photographed, I knew immediately what kind of evening this would be. A staple crowd would turn up to be photographed, they would make small talk and disperse like they dispersed in every other party, no matter what the occasion.
Ghosh had passed from the ambit of mall store book releases into the “entry by invitation only” exclusivity. This was no bookstore. This launch would have no crowd of talkative people so neck-deep in the ethos of Hungry Tide that they forget that there is an audience around them. I was livid. I did not go.
A day later, the lifestyle editor of our newspaper told us that Ghosh was extremely polite and had signed all her books with great courtesy.
“He is a Bengali, like you. Have you read anything by him?”
I raged in silence at a writer climbing the last step of impenetrability and moving out of the reach of the people—his people. How dare the Ghosh of the attic afternoons, the Ghosh whose Burma reflected the one my father spent the best three years of his life, the Ghosh who wrote characters like the softly rebellious Tridib whom we find in every single Bengali home…how dare he betray the shared smallness of our Calcutta to the in-your-face prosperity of Bangalore.
Does the literature that rises from Calcutta belong to the city alone? Yes, I told myself.
I was ashamed even then of feeling this way. But while the likelihood of Ghosh himself announcing that he would like to have a book launch at a hotel instead of a bookstore was pretty slim, I seethed and vowed never to buy this third book.
In 2016, I moved back to Calcutta to work on my own novel. And that year, Ghosh released The Great Derangement. Every publication brought out an interview. I purchased all the magazines that had them. Eventually, I saw a circulating flier on Facebook saying Ghosh would come to a discussion at my university. “All were welcome.”
Events and talks follow a particular tradition at my university. At any given day, somewhere on the campus, a crowd would form around a world-famous academic, leader, writer, or performer visiting then. And the great thing about the crowd was that it was never limited to the students and teachers of the relevant department or even the university. The gates were open to all, all events were open to all.
I reached the hall on a sunny afternoon and could barely open the door enough to slip in. It was entirely full. Ex-students, researchers, professors, ex-professors, organizers, absolute strangers, and current students occupied every inch of the floor and sweated through the air conditioning. Some of the seat handles even had a student on it, crouching low, so as to not obstruct the view of the people behind him or her. The windowsills were occupied. Three people sat on the small bench meant for the sound guy. I sat down on the floor, along with nearly 30 others. Ghosh sat relaxed, and then took out his smartphone and took a photograph of us.
He was in conversation with a professor of comparative literature and one of oceanography. With all the laughter, the effortless discussion, and the way Ghosh referred to how much he had enjoyed an earlier talk at Jadavpur University—a talk in 2008, on the same day when he had gone to the bookstore where I would first see him—he was making amends for releasing Flood of Fire in a swank hotel. The microphone faltered, the room grew hot, but the deep conspiracy of a summer afternoon on Calcutta was at work once again. The writer was ours once again, putting a lid on my jealousy.
Amitav Ghosh would later tweet the photograph of the event. I am there.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The ostensible occasion for this review is the paperback release of B.H. Fairchild’s The Blue Buick: New and Selected Poems, a compendium of 30 years of work, but the real reason is that I was simply moved to write about this book and moreover this poet, this B.H. Fairchild, whose name had previously existed in my peripheral vision but who became for three days of rapid but somehow still assiduous reading the only portal through which I viewed the world, as rivet by rivet the machinery of Fairchild’s frank verse contorted me through its circuitous veins.
Pardon my lousy lyricism there. It’s just that after reading The Blue Buick in large gulps, Fairchild — not his style so much as his spirit — wore off on me. He’s one of those writers whose rhythm you fade into, smoothly, and when you emerge, the undulations still pulse in you, and it’s hard not to mimic the mechanics.
I was doing it again a bit, sorry. The point is that Fairchild’s a hell of a poet, an artist of real power, and though this career-covering collection does contain enough misfires as to become a dependable fault, the majority are really good, and a quite a few are great. It is a testament to Fairchild’s considerable skills — as a poet, yes, but also as a storyteller — that the 300-plus pages of The Blue Buick go down as effortlessly as a beer with friends, creating a tender, yet necessarily critical, mythology of Middle American life.
B.H. Fairchild is actually Bertram Henry Fairchild, III, though he mostly goes by Pete, the name his father wanted to call him, but who was fighting in WWII at the time of the birth and couldn’t object to the traditional christening. Bertram, Sr. called his son Pete anyway. Fairchild spent his childhood in Texas (where he was born in 1942), Kansas, and Oklahoma, and for a portion of that time he watched his father work as a lathe machinist. Young Fairchild clearly absorbed the sumptuous details of his native region, as well as the mechanic rhythm of the machines that powered it. His first three collections, The Arrival of the Future (1985), Local Knowledge (1991), and especially the multiple award-winning The Art of the Lathe (1998), established Fairchild as a master on both subjects.
Any “New and Selected” collection offers the reader an opportunity to view the progress of a writer’s themes and forms. In The Blue Buick’s early pages, we see Fairchild painting portraits of moments, like “Hair,” which depicts the men at “the 23rd Street Barber Shop” who act “like well-behaved children”: “silent, sleepy—sheets / tucked neatly beneath their chins, / legs too short to touch the floor.” In “Angels,” Fairchild presents his first recurring character from his childhood, something he’ll do more and more (and to various effects) throughout his career. We also glimpse, in The Arrival of the Future, a tension that will dominate his verse: Fairchild’s developing identity set against his environment. Initially this tension exists in juxtapositions of diction, as in “Groceries,” when “A woman waits in line and reads / from a book of poems to kill time,” or in “Angels,” when Elliot Ray Neiderland “[hauls] a load of Herefords / from Hogtown to Guymon with a pint of / Ezra Brooks and a copy of Rilke’s Duineser / Elegien on the seat beside him.”
In his second book, Local Knowledge, Fairchild continues his small town portraits but also leaps forward, perhaps too much sometimes, to incorporate more of the philosophical side of the tension. The narratives now include scenes in Czechoslovakia, an Edgar Degas painting, and a college classroom, and instead of only juxtaposing high and low registers within poems Fairchild now divides them between poems. So “Language, Nonsense, Desire” and “L’Attente” sit next to “Kansas” and “Toban’s Precision Machine Shop,” though even in this last setting “Mahler / drifts from Toban’s office in the back,” the undercurrent of art still undulating among the sweat and the oil (two of Fairchild’s favorite words), the whirrs and hums, of mechanized work.
It is as if, in Local Knowledge (a finely phrased paradox when applied to content of the work), Fairchild were trying to disavow his background while also unable to escape its grasp — as if he didn’t want to spend his life writing about Kansas and machinists. The young man with a clear interest in classical music, philosophy, poetry, and art didn’t yet see in the people he knew growing up the material to make art as grand and important as Mahler, say, or Rilke. Fairchild himself is, of course, in these poems, but tenuously, torn between the venturing intellectual poet and the young machinist’s apprentice.
The marriage of these two identities occurs to wondrous effect in The Art of the Lathe, Fairchild’s best collection. He embraces his homeland and imbues it with contemplative energy, finding the philosophical vibrancy he had previously only glimpsed. To exemplify and extol the success of The Art of the Lathe, I’ll focus on two poems that I love so much. The first is “Beauty,” a long poem in which Fairchild thinks about how “no male member of my family has ever used / this word in my hearing or anyone else’s except / in reference, perhaps, to a new pickup or a dead deer.” Fairchild’s earlier portraits inadvertently mythologize and, through powerfully descriptive language and the absence of direct commentary, even glorify the men of his upbringing. Here, the poet confronts whom these men are, and whom he was in their proximity. After describing a chance encounter on the radio “with a discussion of beauty between Robert Penn Warren / and Paul Weiss at Yale College” and how he “felt transported, stunned,” at how they treated the subject “with dignity as if they and the topic / were as normal as normal topics of discussion / between men such as soybean prices or why / the commodities market was a sucker’s game,” Fairchild remembers, by way of contrast, a family incident:
One time my Uncle Ross from California called my mom’s
Sunday dinner centerpiece “lovely,” and my father
left the room, clearly troubled by the word lovely
coupled probably with the very idea of California
and the fact that my Uncle Ross liked to tap-dance.
“Lovely” and “Beauty” — both in italics, like foreign words — are not in the vocabulary of Men (read: straight men), but of course they are integral to the lexicon of art, the language young Fairchild hoped to one day speak. But Fairchild’s friends don’t have such lofty ideas of beauty: when they hear that President Kennedy was shot, they refer to Lee Harvey Oswald’s shot from the Book Depository a “beauty.” When two men (also from California) take a job at his father’s shop and one day strip naked as if “they had forgotten somehow where they were, / that this was not the locker room after the game,” Bobby Sudduth goes after them with an iron file with “not just anger but a kind / of terror on his face,” until he’s stopped my Fairchild’s father, who tells the new employees, “in a voice almost terrible in its gentleness…you boys will have to leave now.” Later, he hears from his father the details of Bobby Sudduth’s suicide: “a single shot / from a twelve-gauge which he held against his chest.” He is reminded, then, of what “someone said of the death of Hart Crane,” “the death of the heart, I suppose, a kind of terrible beauty.”
Notice the repetition of the “terror” on Bobby’s face as he lunges at the offending nudity and the “terrible…gentleness” of his father’s parting words and the “terribly beauty” of his self-inflicted death — these false and homophobic and misogynistic notions of “manhood” and “masculinity” thread themselves through this community, a terribleness that can haunt and even kill the very men who enforce and perpetuate it. Using both the philosophical construct of beauty and the men’s moratorium on its usage, Fairchild pursues high-level profundity with low-brow mechanics.
The second poem, which is maybe my favorite of the book, is “Body and Soul,” in which the father of one of Fairchild’s friends tells a story “about sandlot baseball in Commerce, Oklahoma, decades ago.” Fairchild’s father is there, too, and both the elder men are “half-numb, guzzling bourbon and Coke from coffee mugs” and are “in love with their own stories.” This one’s about a Sunday ballgame between two teams of grown men, only one team is a player short. “Can we use this boy?” they asked. “He’s only fifteen years old, and at least he’ll make a game.” The opposing team agrees (“oh, hell, sure, / let’s play ball”), and the boy with “angelic blond hair” steps up to bat and hits a deep home run. On his second at-bat, the boy nails a curve ball out of the park. “As if this isn’t enough,” the poem continues, “the next time up he bats left-handed,” and even the pitcher’s tricky throw (“something / out of the dark, green hell of forbidden fastballs”) doesn’t stop him. He hits five home runs all told, and “It is something to see.”
This boy, this impossibly gifted ballplayer, turns out to be Mickey Mantle. Fairchild, listening, waits “for the obvious question to be asked: why, oh / why in hell didn’t they just throw around the kid, walk him, / after he hit the third homer?” Fairchild believes he knows the answer:
…they did not because they were men, and this was a boy.
And they did not because sometimes after making love,
after smoking their Chesterfields in the cool silence and
listening to the big bands on the radio that sounded so glamorous,
so distant, they glanced over at their wives and noticed the lines
growing heavier around the eyes and mouth, felt what their wives
felt: that Les Brown and Glenn Miller and all those dancing couples
and in fact all possibility of human gaiety and light-heartedness
were as far away and unreachable as Times Square or the Avalon
Ballroom. They did not because of the gray linoleum lying there
in the half-dark, the free calendar from the local mortuary
that said one day was pretty much like another, the work gloves
looped over the doorknob like dead squirrels. And they did not
because they had gone through a depression and a war that had left
them with the idea that being a man in the eyes of their fathers
and everyone else had cost them just too goddamned much to lay it
at the feet of a fifteen-year-old boy. And so they did not walk him,
and lost, but at least had some ragged remnant of themselves
to take back home.
Mantle showed these men “the vast gap between talent and genius” and “will not be easily forgiven” for it. This is peak Fairchild: contemplative but not obvious, critical but not malicious, and melancholy but not sentimental.
There are also, of course, acrostic verses (including one based not on a single painting but on “All the People in Hopper’s Paintings”) and riffs on machinery. In the title poem, Fairchild introduces the two most important figures — other than his father — of his poetic oeuvre, Roy and Maria Garcia, who feature prominently in his next two collections. In Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, Fairchild’s longest poem, the beautifully elegiac “The Blue Buick,” is an ode to the well-traveled, artistic couple from Fairchild’s youth. And later, Fairchild writes prose poems in Roy’s voice; Usher, his next book, contains five more. Through figures like Roy and Maria, and through in general Fairchild’s vivid rendering of the small towns of his past, The Blue Buick, and Fairchild’s career, reads like a complexly plotted story. When “The Memory Palace” arrives at the end of Early Occult Memory Systems and many of the previous subjects and people (Roy, O.T., the word beauty, Uncle Harry, et al) reappear, there is a sense of wistfulness in it, as if we, too, have come to know these people and this region.
His last book, Usher, and the “New Poems” featured here are by far The Blue Buick’s weakest. Usher has better moments, like the multi-part “The Beauty of Abandoned Towns,” which speaks both to Fairchild’s past and the inalterable changes that have occurred since he left. At an abandoned school, Fairchild notes: “Nothing is everywhere: doorless doorways, / dirt-filled foundations, and weed-pocked / sidewalks leading to a sky that blued / the eyes of bored students stupefied / by geometry and Caesar’s Latin.” But the voice poems here — from the point of view of Maria Rasputin, Hart Crane, Frieda Pushnik, and others — don’t work nearly as well as Fairchild’s natural tone. And the philosophical investigations, once so finely integrated into the fold of reality, now stand directly in the reader’s face.
And there seems to be a dearth of interesting subjects in the “New Poems,” and worse, nothing interesting is added to them. “The Story” is a tired, unoriginal poem on artistic inspiration (ending with the lines, “This is where the story ends. And now you know, / this is also where it begins, and you lean / into the light, put the pen to paper, and write”). A poem dedicated to his college professors, “Leaving,” is so amateurish I can’t believe it was written by the same person. As he drives off to college, Fairchild uses the car’s rearview mirror to depict the past he’s leaving, “while ahead wait Plato, Aristotle, Dante, / Shakespeare, Keats, Melville, Dostoyevsky, / Fitzgerald, the blue lawn, the green light, / and a New World called the life of the mind.” No doubt this is how many of us felt as we emerged from youth into the tantalizing threshold of adulthood, and if asked many might articulate their excitement in similar terms, but this is no commercial for the poem. It sounds more like a poorly written memoir.
The poems that work best are the ones that grapple with Fairchild’s identity set against his familial and regional legacies. He was a quiet kid who liked beauty in towns riddled with homophobia, misogyny, and strict yet unspoken notions of masculinity. Fairchild, as a poet, fights against these ideas, yet how many of the people he knew and loved will go with them? The era is bound to pass, and does, as represented by the introduction of the diamond drill bit, which basically eliminated his father’s vocation. When told of their inevitable doom, Fairchild recalls his reaction:
…I looked at the face
of my father staring into the future, at the shop
he had built, the lathes lined up along the north side,
their iron song almost unbroken through twenty years,
the never-washed, grease-laden windows, gutted drawworks,
gears, bushings, tools spilled across the now scarred
cement floor where I had worked every summer
since I was ten. And then a feather grazed my ear,
the ruffle of wings, and a vision rose in my head:
I was free.
The old gears of Fairchild’s youth — and the town and people who operated them — have finally stopped, freeing Fairchild to pursue art, yes, but also allowing him to define himself without allegiance to his father or his shop. He can now read Molière or say beauty as much as he wants, a burden lifted, and the beliefs instilled in him by Kansas and Texas and Oklahoma can finally be disavowed. But the machinery isn’t gone from the world completely — it was merely replaced by a better and more effective tool — just from Fairchild’s heart. Prejudice and privilege still exist and are as insidious and as damaging as ever, but there is still a sliver of solace to be taken from Fairchild’s experience, if only to hope for its proliferating recurrence: to better and enrich the world, one heart at a time.
Over the course of more than a dozen works of nonfiction, Rebecca Solnit has built a singular vehicle that traverses the poetics of place, and by “place” we mean everything. She writes, with cerebral ferocity, about photography, human culture, literature, walking and wandering, politics, environment. In her latest, The Faraway Nearby, she writes about herself: that is to say, about the stories that comprise autobiography (the notion in general and hers specifically), literature, myth, fairytale, and the act of writing. By which we mean, again, everything.
“People disappear into their stories all the time,” she writes, inviting us to disappear into hers. We gladly do, since every careful sentence, every judicious image comprising chapters that take the reader forward and back into the nature of storytelling, is plenty alluring. It is her contention that making stories — something we are, anyway, helpless not to do — is an act both of creation and deception, of the self and of others (“I am, we each are, the inmost of an endless series of Russian dolls; you who read are now encased within a layer I built for you, or perhaps my stories are now inside you”; “We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind”).
Solnit deploys several themes she manages, with a pickpocket’s skill, to remove from one place and insert into another: a visit to Iceland, her mother’s decline into the losses (and gains) of dementia, her own cancer surgery, and narcissism as personality disorder as well as literary construct, among others. Along the way, her erudition acts as a seine net wide enough to catch at once Frankenstein, Road Runner cartoons, Che Guevara, the Duino Elegies, Dutch vanitas paintings, and arctic terns. Improbably they all come together just so, and it’s a tour de force of logic and writing (done well, the latter is impossible without the former).
In the award-winning River of Shadows, Solnit’s project was to show how photographer Eadweard Muybridge, by inventing moving pictures, invented modern culture through giving rise to the California of Hollywood and Silicon Valley (near her home, another frequent subject) that has become our imaginative center; in the canny A Paradise Built in Hell, it was to explore the flip side of mass psychology and posit the contrary notion that it is in severe crisis that humans experience the bliss of ideal society, helpful and compassionate. Of course, this is the high-concept sell: they are no more “about” their ostensible subjects than a Cézanne still-life is about fruit. To truly describe her work, nonfiction in name only, it would be necessary to reproduce it in its seamless entirety; it is prose poetry, and cultural criticism, and polemic, and…just itself, sui generis. Her latest? Even more so.
The title is taken from the correspondence of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe who, after she had moved from New York to New Mexico, signed off “from the faraway nearby.” It summarizes Solnit’s primary thesis on the role of storytelling in our lives: that it displays an interplay of advance and retreat simultaneously bringing us close to a narrative’s meaning and distancing us from it. (And so a frequent theme of all her work, geography, here becomes metaphoric.) The whole book is an intricate working model of the idea. The progression of Alzheimer’s, which afflicts her mother and is a story that begins and ends the book and enfolds all that comes between, also causes a return to childhood; “time runs backward,” just as it does in varying accounts of “the mother who eats her children,” an Inuit woman who reputedly cannibalized her family during a weather-induced famine. (By association, Solnit also implicates her own mother, the selfishly bereft type “who gave herself away to everyone or someone and tried to get herself back from a daughter.”) The book itself is structured so that it goes forward, meets a mirror, whereupon it runs backward: the table of contents forms a chiastic concrete poem, Apricots, Mirrors, Ice, Flight, Breath, Wound, Knot, Unwound, Breath, Flight, Ice, Mirrors, Apricots.
A common theme of late in literary theory is the unreliable narrator. You’d think one of our foremost cultural critics, in a book about making stories, would be driven to have the last word in that debate. And so she does, firmly, but only by not mentioning it. Her model of the story is one of lineage, of begetting and begat, of dialectic. By writing, “You can have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand.” Underneath every story there is another one, and another below that, descending into the infinite basement of the past which is attained, temporally, by ascending into the future. Then she makes this assertion literal: beneath the stories on every page runs a single italicized line from yet another, and we can choose how to read them, continuously, like a subterranean stream, or as poem fragments intercepting the whole. (The one on page 6, by accident or even more incredibly by design, appears to give the reading instructions: “…like a ballad of one line or a history compressed down to its barest essentials…”)
The tale of Scheherazade, naturally, recurs in this symphony of recurrences. It distills the idea that telling stories keeps us alive. Solnit makes clear that it has saved her, again and again. In reading her story, we forestall the death of its ending, though “there is always more to tell; one thread is tangled up with all the others; even when it stops, other threads carry the story onward, beyond the horizon.”
The Faraway Nearby is a work of literary origami, amazing in its construction. Perfect, even. If pricked, though, I suspect it would bleed ice water, that which surrounded her in the art installation in which she took her Icelandic residency: it was called the Library of Water.
Like I said, perfect.
“If an ox begins to sicken,” Cato the Elder writes in his treatise on Roman farm management, “give him without delay a raw hen’s egg and make him swallow it whole. The next day make him drink from a wooden bowl a measure of wine in which has been scraped the head of an onion. Both the ox and his attendant should do these things fasting and standing upright.”
This passage has stuck with me, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, since the time I first read it, whenever that may have been. I’m less interested in the questionable medicine it prescribes than in the image of the ox and his attendant — who, on the farm described by Cato, was most likely a slave — together: the attendant going about his work, the ox patiently enduring his ministrations. The two at once familiar and yet gazing across an unfathomable distance of incomprehension as they stand facing one another, both unfed save the ox’s hen’s egg and measure of wine.
I’ve been thinking of the passage often lately, as my novel, That’s Not a Feeling, is, to my surprise, filled with animals. The novel is set on the rural campus of a boarding school, so it isn’t entirely unexpected that animals should appear. But a brief catalogue of non-human animals seen and discussed in its pages would include deer, bees, ducks, a turkey, cats, a caterpillar, a goat, a pig, some chickens, an owl, two wasps, a peahen, horses, bats, some birds that are not further identified, and a snake. This seems to me, if not quite excessive, then at least curious. It’s the kind of thing I try not to think much about while I’m writing, but now that the book is in its final form, I don’t really see what harm it can do.
In the eighth of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, the poet contrasts animals’ way of being in the world with that of people. “The creature gazes into openness,” he writes, in A. S. Kline’s translation, “… and when it moves, it moves / in eternity, as streams do.” Humans, however, are always looking inward, “our eyes are / as if they were reversed.” I’m sure that making this type of distinction is not what I was up to. First of all, I find it too romantic, too idealized. And the animals I’ve written about aren’t the free, sure beasts described by Rilke. They are often frightened, in the wrong place, or sick, like the ox in Cato.
In this way, they are mirrors of the human characters in the book, who are also often unsettled, ill at ease, or worse. And these characters’ confusion and anxiety is analogous to the opacity that, it seems to me, exists between people and animals. “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him,” Wittgenstein says. I take this to mean that a lion’s life, his experiences and concerns, are so foreign to us that even if he shared our language, we wouldn’t know what he was talking about. Just before making this point in the Philosophical Investigations, a point I think we can safely assume applies to all animals and not only to lions, Wittgenstein discusses the transparency, or lack thereof, between people. He says, “…one human being can be a complete enigma to another.” And, Freud might have added, a complete enigma to himself or herself as well.
This begins to feel more like what I may have been after, populating the margins of my book with unsteady animals. They stand (or crawl, or fly) as reminders that proximity doesn’t dispel mystery. Just as Cato’s ox and his attendant can live and work together without claiming to know one another completely, we can live among animals and among people without assuming that we comprehend them. This is less a philistine’s incuriosity about his surroundings than a degree of humility as regards the limits of our understanding. Just as psychoanalysis shows us how we are always telling the truth though we do not know the truth, and can be ourselves — can’t help being ourselves — though we remain strangers to ourselves. And yet we are never so resigned that we stop trying to find out more. I like the way animals in books, what John Berger called “animals of the mind,” can serve as emblems of this. From the meadows and the trees, they gaze out at the human characters, who cannot help but wonder what it is the animals see.