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Rebecca Solnit's 'The Faraway Nearby' offers a storyteller's empathy

Rebecca Solnit's latest book, "The Faraway Nearby" (Viking: 260 pp., $25.95), began with a delivery of 100 pounds of apricots.

"It was like a trumpet blew and said, 'You're entering the world of narrative," the 52-year-old author recalls by phone from her home in San Francisco's Mission District, her voice soft as falling petals, her laugh a whisper on the wire.

The apricots came from her brother, who had collected them from a tree in their mother's yard. At the time, the older woman was in the throes of Alzheimer's; 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.

In 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.

"My mother's real problem," she recalls, "was not with me but with the enormous baggage of stories that had come between us. When Alzheimer's took those away, it was as if she began to see me for the first time."

"The Faraway Nearby" is a book about storytelling, with a parallel inquiry into empathy. On the first page, Solnit appropriates Joan Didion's 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 live."

In many ways, that's 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 — walking, urbanism, the way we interact with disaster — through a highly idiosyncratic lens. She 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.

"The 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 Guevara's "The Motorcycle Diaries" while telling us something about who we are and how we come together, or how we break apart.

The 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."

Her 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.

For Solnit (with whom, full disclosure, I share a literary agent), that's 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.

"I 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, 'That's not me, that's her,' 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 way."

What Solnit's talking about is how stories allow us to inhabit each other's 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.

"I think we keep each other company in some profound way," Solnit says, recalling that, during her convalescence, friends were constantly sharing their own scars and ailments, "the most intimate secrets about their bodies": the sorts of revelations we are taught to treat with shame.

"We learn from therapy," she continues, "to tell stories in a way that's lonely: Look what happened to me. .... But I think stories are inherently empathetic, that we give ourselves these things, and see each other through them."

At 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. It's partly because we imagine that gifts put us in the giver's 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."

Indeed, "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 that's so overwhelming," Solnit suggests, "it's almost impossible not to shut down. Just think about the volume of emails you get every day, everything that's pulling at your attention all the time."

And 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."

In 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 — her mother's Alzheimer's, her own breast cancer scare — are important less in their own right than as part of a tapestry composed out of everything she's ever thought or read.

"It's funny," she says, "a conventional memoir about breast cancer or a parent's deterioration would include tons of information, but there wasn't 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.

The 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?"

david.ulin@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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