“I like a lot of things about being a woman, but there are times and ways it’s a prison, and sometimes I daydream about being out of that prison.” The Guardian has a crack Rebecca Solnit essay about clothing, gender, and of course, mansplaining. Pair with our review of Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby.
“I wish all this telling women alcohol is dangerous was a manifestation of a country that loves babies so much it’s all over lead contamination from New Orleans to Baltimore to Flint and the lousy nitrate-contaminated water of Iowa and carcinogenic pesticides and the links between sugary junk food and juvenile diabetes and the need for universal access to healthcare and daycare and good and adequate food. You know it’s not. It’s just about hating on women. Hating on women requires narratives that make men vanish and make women magicians producing babies out of thin air and dissolute habits.” Rebecca Solnit on the passive voice, mysterious pregnancies, disappearing men, and the Center for Disease Control. Pair with this Millions review of Solnit’s book The Faraway Nearby.
Looking back over what I wrote on this occasion last year, I see that my first sentence was this: “For me, 2012 has been at least as much a Year in Not Reading as a Year in Reading.” I re-read this now with rueful irony, like Beckett’s Krapp listening to the voices of his younger selves. What the hell did I imagine I knew about not reading in 2012? 2012? Before my wife and I had a son, and the remains of the day became consumed by the rigors of infant-admin — of feeding and changing and dandling and soothing and wiping and sterilizing? “No, no, no,” I mutter to my former self. “Believe you me, pal, you don’t know shit about not reading. But you’re about to learn. Stick around another few months, then we’ll talk about not reading.” I wouldn’t want that time back, of course — not, as Krapp would say, with the fire in me now — but I wish I’d been more appreciative then of how much leisure time I actually had, of how much I was, in fact, at liberty to read.
All of which filibustering is by way of saying, I suppose, that my year in reading has been compromised somewhat by my year in living; and yet — heroically, I feel — I still managed to consume a fair amount of high-end lit over the last 12 months. Looking back, my interest seems to have run more toward non-fiction than fiction, and the books that had the strongest impact on me tended to come in under that vague rubric. My favorite new book this year was Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, which I read when it came out in June. It’s a beautiful and profound book of essayistic reflections on memory, family, grief, travel, and storytelling. The jacket copy (like its author) categorizes it as an anti-memoir, which makes it sound maybe more abstruse than it is, but it’s accurate enough. It begins with Solnit’s brother delivering a gigantic pile of apricots to her home — a haul from the garden of her Alzheimer’s-suffering mother who has just been placed into care. The fruit sits rotting on her floor, and become a pungent and seeping metaphor for mortality at the center of the book, prompting all sorts of beautiful meditations on time and loss and decay and storytelling. “The object we call a book,” she writes, “is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is in the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates.” Solnit’s book is at home in my head now.
This summer, I read Janet Malcolm’s new collection Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, which immediately made me realize that I needed to read as much of her as I possibly could. So I went on a minor Malcolm binge — although “binge” is not nearly the right word for Malcolm: it was more like a rigorous and salutary diet. So I read Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives and The Journalist and the Murderer, and felt much the better for it.
Fiction-wise, I was very taken with China Miéville’s The City & the City — a book which I’d been meaning to read for a couple of years, but which I only got around to when I put it on a course I was teaching. (This, incidentally, is a great way to force yourself to read a book; I’ve found it to be pretty much foolproof over the years.) It’s a sort of speculative police procedural that slyly insinuates itself into your experience of everyday life. It’s set in the two imagined (but vaguely eastern European) cities of Ul Quoma and Besźel. These cities are culturally and economically distinct, but occupy the same geographic space — are in fact exactly the same city — a situation that is sustained by a brutally stringent system of laws and surveillance and the diligent disregard — or “unseeing” — of the two cities’ residents. Although it’s by no means a satirical fable, the experience of reading it nonetheless provokes a kind of unsettling realization of the ways in which we ignore certain obvious dimensions of the spaces we live in.
Another book that really got me was I Await the Devil’s Coming, the confessional diary of the 19-year-old Mary MacLane, written over three months at the turn of the last century (republished this year by Melville House after a near century of, I think, comparative obscurity). In a lot of ways, MacLane is a fairly typical teenage girl — exasperated by her family and bored insensible by the stultifying life of a small town — but she is also possessed of an unshakeable conviction in her own genius, a phenomenally snazzy prose style, and an erotic obsession — at once ironic and sincere — with the actual devil. It’s funny, troubling, touching, and finally kind of amazing. There are passages on her love of food (porterhouse steak in particular) and her fuming hatred of her family’s toothbrushes that will never leave me.
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Some years ago, before my first novel found its eventual home, several editors in a row said the book was “too quiet.” I was told at the time that this was just a euphemism for “no obvious marketing angle,” but I found it interesting to consider the idea that some novels are quiet, whereas others are loud.
In her exquisite memoir, The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit writes movingly of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Shelley gave birth to four children, but only the fourth survived. “In the years she gave birth to all those too-mortal children,” Solnit writes:
…she also created a work of art that yet lives, a monster of sorts in its depth of horror, and a beauty in the strength of its vision and its acuity in describing the modern world that in 1816 was just emerging. This is the strange life of books that you enter alone as a writer, mapping an unknown territory that arises as you travel. If you succeed in the voyage, others enter after, one at a time, also alone, but in communion with your imagination, traversing your route. Books are solitudes in which we meet.
But before the meeting comes the solitude, the book as a private space that a reader steps into, and nowhere is this clearer to me than on the subway. On any given morning, a majority of my fellow passengers are reading. It’s a way to pass the time, of course, but it seems to me that escaping into a book in these moments is also a bid for some measure of seclusion.
In the places where everyone drives, the roads fill with single-occupancy vehicles in the mornings and the late afternoons, thousands or millions of drivers in their solitudes. On a subway commute, packed in with strangers in an underground train, solitude is more elusive. We resort to small tricks to find some space for ourselves: the noise-blocking headphones, the iPad, the book. I wear earbuds on my commute, but unless I’m too tired to read or the person next to me is loud, the iPod in my pocket is dark. I just want things to be a little quieter, so that I can disappear into my book more fully. In those moments I just want to be a little more alone.
It probably goes without saying that you’ll crave different solitudes at different moments in your life, both in books and in physical places. I have an immense love for loud books. Novels like, say, Nick Harkaway’s, about which I’ve rhapsodized at length, books that come galloping into your life with their doomsday machines and schoolgirl spies and ninjas and leave you daydreaming for days afterward about clouds of mechanized bees. But on the other end of the spectrum, there’s the immense pleasure of novels like Teju Cole’s Open City, which I finally got around to reading a few weeks back. Very little happens in Open City, plotwise. It’s a very intelligent meditation on memory, dislocation, family, music, national identity, and other interesting topics, but the action is mostly a man wandering the streets of New York. I found it mesmerizing.
Lately, possibly because it’s been a long summer of continuous hard work on a new novel and I don’t want to think about plot just now, or perhaps because my annual allotment of vacation days at my day job resets every September 1st, I’ve been out of vacation time since February, and reading quiet books is the closest I can get to a vacation at the moment, I’ve discovered a new appreciation for books that fall on the quieter end of the spectrum.
Any definition of what constitutes a quiet book will naturally be subjective, but I think the important point here is that quiet isn’t the same thing as inert. I’m not talking about the tediously self-conscious novels written by authors who use “literary fiction” as a sort of alibi, as in “my book doesn’t have a plot, because it’s literary fiction.” I rarely get more than fifty pages into these books before they join the books-that-need-to-get-out-of-my-apartment-immediately pile by the front door. Nor is quiet necessarily the same thing as minimalist. Raymond Chandler’s prose is minimalistic, but his stories aren’t quiet.
The books I think of as being quiet, the ones I’ve been enjoying lately, have a distilled quality about them, an unshowy thoughtfulness and a sense of grace, of having been boiled down to the bare essentials. If the solitude you crave at the moment is a quiet one, here’s a short reading list of quiet books that I’ve recently read and admired:
1. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The book takes the form of a letter written by an aging Congregationalist minister, John Ames, to his young son. I found the language extraordinary.
2. Open City by Teju Cole
A young psychiatrist, Nigerian-born, walks the streets of New York City. The walks open the city to him and serve as a respite from the stress of his working life.
3. Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon
A North Korean man defects and immigrates to a coastal town in Brazil following the Korean War, where he becomes a tailor’s apprentice. An elegant account of a quiet and solitary life.
4. The Number of Missing by Adam Berlin
A deeply moving chronicle of drinking, friendship, and grief. Paul was among the scores of Cantor Fitzgerald employees who died in the World Trade Center. In the months following the 9/11 attacks, his best friend, David, moves like a ghost between the bars of Manhattan, sometimes with and sometimes without Paul’s widow, Mel. Both are falling, but David is waiting for Mel to fall first, so that he can catch her.
5. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Sophia, age six, and her grandmother, who’s nearing the end of her life, while away the days of a summer on a remote island in the Bay of Finland. Jansson’s depiction of both characters and of their relationship is delightful.
6. The Harp in the South by Ruth Park
A classic in Australia. A couple raise their children in the slums of 1940s Sydney, “in an unlucky house which the landlord had renumbered from Thirteen to Twelve-and-a-Half.”
Image via Michael Veltman/Flickr
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.
New this week: The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls, Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth Silver, Bobcat by Rebecca Lee, and a retelling of One Thousand and One Nights by Hanan al-Shaykh, with a foreword by Mary Gaitskill.