THE FARAWAY NEARBY
by Rebecca Solnit
Viking, 272 Pages
Reviewed by Colleen Davis
Once a month my Saturday morning yoga class swaps our beloved Iyengar teacher for a visiting Power yoga trainer from Manhattan. Captain Kate is not her real name, but that’s what I call the woman who drives us through 85 minutes of fast, challenging postures which are not all that different from our normal fare. What Kate changes is the pace of our effort and the time we spend holding each pose. Under her direction, my country classmates and I move at the speed she expects from students in her 105-degree New York studio. Our local practice site has no amped up heating system, but a class with Kate still leaves us drenched. This is her rigorous lead up to the final moment when we gratefully follow Kate’s instruction to “lower our head and bow our mind to the power of the heart.” After all the physical exertion we’ve just endured, this commandment becomes easier to follow and sweet to feel.
Rebecca Solnit is a writer who also understands a thing or two about the power of rigor. Her writing displays a masterful command of language, imagery, and arcane knowledge of the most fascinating sort. Reading her book, The Faraway Nearby, is like getting into the car at an old-fashioned funhouse where you find yourself crashing through surprise encounters with Frankenstein, cannibalism, and leprosy. These topics and many others are held up to the spooky circus mirrors she creates through magnificent arrangements of detail and tangled story threads.
Her panoramic embrace of ideas is part of what makes Solnit an author worth reading. She manages to weave a baccalaureate’s worth of information into thirteen chapters that are nominally about three painful subjects: a parent’s Alzheimer’s disease, a cancer scare, and a bad romantic break-up. These serious life events are refracted through the lens of her dense and unrelenting prose. The result is both beautiful and somehow disappointing.
Solnit furnishes many explanations of her mother’s failure to become a nurturing presence during the early decades of the author’s life. The writer’s catalogue of wounds begins with a description of parental narcissism that is both plausible and disconcerting. It’s not hard to see that Solnit escaped from childhood pain by submerging herself in the cauldron of learning. This long and lonely metamorphic process must have fostered the development of her admirable intellect and substantial literary skill.
Despite these gifts, and the fact that The Faraway Nearby includes several passages exploring the concept of empathy, the reader is left feeling that Solnit’s experience of empathy is an arm’s length affair. Even as she recounts some sweeter shared moments near the end of her mother’s life, you get the impression that Solnit couldn’t really open herself to the expansion of heart that accompanies true compassion.
Late in the book she grumbles about editors’ frequent demands to wring happy endings from the overflowing cup of human despair. This is a reasonable complaint that most writers grapple with on many occasions. But I could easily envision the editor of this book begging such a talented author to try — please, please try! — to stop and reflect on the subterranean emotions propelling her agile mind. One can only imagine how the ideas Solnit explores intellectually might glisten if viewed through a more evolved emotional prism.
As someone who has shared Solnit’s plight of playing the simultaneous roles of writer and dementia caregiver, I can attest to the conflicts posed by the situation. But if I’ve learned anything from this challenge, it’s that a curious person can dramatically expand their understanding of the human experience by approaching these tasks with compassion and humility. There’s no book in the world, no tale more compelling, no journey more educational than the one that begins when your head really bows to the power of the heart.
–September 25, 2013
Colleen Davis is a Pennsylvania writer and author of the website Between the Pond and the Woods, which provides information and a Facebook forum for dementia caregivers. She writes for the Penn Memory Center and is a script writer for the documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment“, which airs on 6abc.