Solnit (A Paradise Built in Hell, 2010, etc.) considers the nature and purposes of storytelling in a series of elegantly nested meditations.
The author begins with 100 pounds of apricots, picked from a tree outside the home her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother can no longer safely inhabit. Canning this abundance of perishable fruit to preserve it, Solnit begins to think about the ways in which the stories we tell arrest time; her musings on decay and death gain greater urgency when she learns that she has a potentially cancerous condition that requires surgery. In “Mirrors,” she recalls that telling stories was a vehicle for her mother’s deeply conflicted views about the past; their relationship was fraught, and Solnit escaped from constant criticisms and resentments into the solace of books. Yet “books are solitudes in which we meet,” she insists, repeatedly using the word “empathy” to characterize the essential quality needed to create stories that express our common humanity. Solnit co-opts Georgia O’Keeffe’s wonderfully evocative phrase “the faraway nearby” to specify the delicate balance between distance and closeness that enables this process of reaching out through storytelling. She employs a series of chapter titles that serve as both metaphors and precise physical descriptions—“Ice,” “Flight,” “Breath” and “Wound”—to propel her narrative into the central “Knot.” In it, she is operated on, “then sewn shut with thread and knots,” prompting her to expatiate on Greek mythology’s ancient image of human life as a thread winding through a labyrinth. “Unwound” begins the process of re-using previous chapter titles to give them new meanings as Solnit recuperates in Iceland, and the text moves toward a final consideration of those apricots as “a catalyst that made the chaos of that era come together as a story of sorts.”
A provocative, moving mélange of personal confession and intellectual inquiry—another sui generis work from one of our most stimulating essayists.