Fiction Unbound: On Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost

field guide to getting lostI’m on a bit of a Rebecca Solnit tear right now. I recently gave my reading notes for The Faraway Nearby, and I’m currently reading Wanderlust: A History of Walking. In between, I picked up A Field Guide to Getting Lost. It’s brilliant, of course. And it’s got that perfect Solnit touch that walks the line between universal and individual, abstract and personal.

But there is one weird section I’ve been struggling with. Every couple of days I think back to how irritated I was when I read it and then I try on different reasons to explain why it bothered me so much. I think I’ve got it. And as I am a big believer that significant lessons may be learned by parsing out one’s own irritations, I wanted to jot it down here.

What follows turns out to be an examination of what intellectual probing (in the particular way of the essayist) may or may not offer the writing of fiction, based on a moment in the book when Solnit offers a somewhat detailed plot treatment of an imaginary novel.

The premise of the book is that there are many ways to get lost. Geographically, mentally, spiritually, etc. It’s also a book about distance: where you are vs. where you’ve been or where you’re going. So, in line with both themes, she begins the essay “Two Arrowheads” with this totally killer passage:

“Once I loved a man who was a lot like the desert, and before that I loved the desert. It wasn’t particular things but the space between them, that abundance of absence, that is the desert’s invitation.”

The beginning of the chapter is a dreamy stream-of-consciousness meditation upon that love (her love of the desert and its “hermit”) and love’s narrative path in general. There are animals, and many changes of color, and when you set that quiet circus into the stark desert setting you get something that seems like a bunch of Chagall surrounded by Georgia O’Keeffe. It’s odd. But fine.

Then there is a break-up which is so beautifully described. I recommend reading it, should you ever find yourself abruptly romantically untangled in the harsh landscape of a vast nothingness (which is what all break-ups feel like, whether you’re in the middle of nowhere or not). In a thought that echoes Solnit’s perpetual emphasis on story and also recalls Tolstoy (who should be quoted in all discussion of hermit-dating) she says:

“A happy love is a single story, a disintegrating one is two or more competing, conflicting versions, and a disintegrated one lies at your feet like a shattered mirror, each shard reflecting a different story, that it was wonderful, that it was terrible, if only this had, if only that hadn’t.”

The love ends. There are animals. And weather. And then, suddenly, Solnit goes on to narrate a story that she writes upon leaving the desert and returning to the city. Except that she doesn’t write it. It exists only in her head.  (She also mentions a play that she wrote at nineteen. The intertextuality of her unwritten world becomes  a bit confusing.)

The premise of this story, called “Slip,” is stunning. It is (or, I guess, would be, were it actually written?) a feminist rewriting of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, with a minor character at its center. In the film, there’s the detective, of course, chasing after Madeleine, a (real-ish) phantom woman. There’s Judy, the woman he forces to become the original phantom woman (who had herself already been transformed into a version of Madeleine by another man – Solnit writes that a woman made to disappear at the hands of men is “a common enough tragedy.”) But then there’s Midge, a childhood sweetheart of the detective’s who designs lingerie based on the architecture of the Golden Gate Bridge, who has an abundant love life (she reveals this with casual confidence), and who broke off her engagement with the detective at some point before the time of the film.

In Solnit’s “Slip,” Midge (Margaretta, as she is renamed) would tell her own story, in which the detective and Judy would be mere footnotes. For the most part, the narrative would busy itself with adventures in the Beat scene of 1950’s San Francisco. The title word serves many purposes. A slip is part of the architecture of the female attire, people in the story let their secrets slip, they slip in and out of different roles, there are slips of paper lying between the pages of volumes at Argosy bookstore. And (Solnit doesn’t include this but I think it’s implied) Vertigo is all about (supposedly) accidental falls from high places. Vertigo, the fear that haunts the detective, is a fear of slipping and falling.

For several pages, Solnit gives details of what the story is about and how the main themes would be connected by this idea of the “slip.” She says of Vertigo vs. her unwritten story: “The movie is about fear of gravity and ascent; I made both pleasures for [Margaretta].” But the author seemingly never had any desire to write the story. I find this unsettling. The premise of the story, all of the ideas contained therein, are so sharp. I mean, really, most writers would kill for content that is as good as what Solnit dishes out here. It’s somewhat unfortunate that the few lines she chooses to ‘quote’ from her imagination are sort of bland. But what makes them bland is that they are written in the same way that she writes her essays. They are lines of Margaretta’s that sound as though Margaretta is delivering a discourse on the nature of memory and its effects upon the physical form. Margaretta is not a character, but a container for ideas. Example:

“I don’t remember his face but every man who touched me made one gesture that never quite came to an end; I can feel the forearm of one across my belly as he swam up behind me in a lake, the rough kiss of another on my palm, and sometimes I think that there might be some device like the X-ray machines they use to look at your feet in shoe stores that would make these indelible impressions visible, a series of marks, the opposite of bruises, across and around me, and I went through the world dressed in those experiences, we all do.”

I don’t buy it. I don’t know why exactly I don’t buy it. The image itself is perfect. The prose is well-formed enough. But the reason I don’t buy it must be at the heart of what makes fiction different from not fiction.

Here’s a suggestion, provided by Solnit herself, in the same essay, and strangely separated out by parentheses as if this is really (turtles, deserts, men, heartbreak, misogynist filmmakers and Greek mythology aside) what the whole thing was about:

“(In essays, ideas are the protagonists, and they often develop much like characters down to the surprise denouement.)”

That’s the key. She comes from ideas and not from characters. And I’m not a fiction writer by any means. But I know that ideas do not make stories. Convincing stories, if you’ll permit me an opinion in place of a well-reasoned argument, are magic – not method. Characters are alchemy – not chemistry. I think this is why Solnit, despite the beauty of her language and the astute observations about her own character and occasionally others’, purposefully abstains from writing fiction.

I’m reminded of something that Nancy Huston said once about having been a student of Roland Barthes. Someone asked her what she learned from the great theorist of literature. What about that experience helped her writing? She said, more or less, that he did not teach her very much about writing, but that he did give her one of the greatest lessons of all, which was: not to get too smart. According to Huston (and this is kind of a well-known telling of Barthes’ life), he was a sad figure. This was due, in part, to the fact that he desired to write fiction, but never seemed to successfully pull it off. Because he knew too much and knew too deeply about the ways that fiction works. For him, there were no available mysteries.

As I’m writing this, young hotshot Megan Abbott has just published an article on Catapult in which she calls writing ‘conjuring’ but seems not to distinguish between the moment when you understand the magic of what literature does and how it is done, and writing in general. The funny thing is that for a while – while you are young (she writes about discovering the magic of close reading MacBeth during her freshman year of college) – creation and analysis are not exclusive but rather help each other out. It’s only after, oh, let’s say, a doctorate in literature (highly focused on literary theory of a certain period in which all -ism’s are proceeded by some incarnation of the word ‘structure’) that your creativity gets pummeled into the dirt.

But before I leave off with some half-assed-formed conclusion that essayists cannot be fiction writers because the life of their writing is in ideas and not in characters (that’s not really a conclusion either, it’s just something to ponder, and I do NOT prioritize fiction over non-fiction. I think they both offer important ways to write the truths and the stories of the world) I want to return for a minute to what’s unsettling about the authorial conceit/tactic in the chapter “Two Arrowheads.”

The reason for Solnit’s rewrite of Vertigo is presumably that the premise of the film is essentially rooted in a form of creepy misogyny. There’s a lot of lady-killing. First, the real Madeleine Elster is killed (although she is made to look suicided). Judy is called upon to impersonate her as part of the murder plot – a kind of psychological death as she is transformed into Madeleine. Madeleine’s already dead body is thrown from the top of a tower – a rekilling of a dead body. And then Judy, because she is in love with the detective, pretends to be Madeleine again because the detective had fallen in love with her in this role – second psychological death. So both of these blonde women are killed (actually or conceptually) twice. It’s not great. Really. It’s messed up.

Both women are constructed into a form of idealized blonde woman. (And, as it turns out, that isn’t terribly far off from what Hitchcock really did to blonde women actresses, manipulating them to achieve an ideal form.)

But shouldn’t it be sort of odd that, in her imaginary story “Slip,” Solnit takes this Midge character and flattens her into a screen upon which to project a bunch of very interesting ideas? Isn’t it strange that, in the midst of writing an essay on what it means to transform a woman into an ideal, she would provide detailed analysis of an unrealized (unrealizable?) narrative in which the main character becomes a conduit for the author’s own thoughts (about sexuality, geography, pleasure, gravity, memory, etc.)?

Maybe that’s what characters are. Conduits of ideas. And I think the argument could be made that all characters are (to a greater or lesser extent) incarnations of the author’s own profoundly interesting psyche. I also think that characters carry ideas in them and that they represent/express important abstractions. But, on some level, they have to be people, too. And I think Solnit knows that you can’t simply intellectually Pygmalionatize a character to life in order to make a point. (See also: the film Ruby Sparks.)

There’s a basic level on which characters have to be alive. (Which, by the way, is why Barthes could not write fiction. Remember, the death of the author was not the birth of the character. The death of the author is the birth of the reader. That is beautiful and important. But it’s different.)

And, to conclude, that’s why I think this story can’t ever be written. Why it has to remain in the imaginary. Here is Solnit’s explanation:

“In the fall, I went back to the city and began to compose a story in my head. I was already working on a book then, or I would have written it down. Now it is as decayed as a real book might be after being buried or abandoned, and when I think of the scraps that remain, I wonder what weather in the mind so erodes such things.”

And later:

“There’s not much more I remember of this book that seemed so complete in my head at one time, though I couldn’t bring myself to write one word down, not wanting to start unless I could finish. Plot, character, dialogue seem mostly to have vanished as anything more than broad outlines.”

So she was busy. This work of fiction never got written. It was put aside and then it was buried and decayed (murdered/suicided just like Madeleine). But you know what, I’m not buying that either. For someone who has written so eloquently about the creation of Frankenstein (see: Ice” from The Faraway Nearby), you would have to expect Solnit to know, all too well, that you cannot piece together a series of abstract ideas, assemble them, and call it a character. Plot, character, dialogue are gone. But the ideas remain, because the ideas were what Margaretta was made of in the first place.

If anything, this awkward and troubling insertion of an imaginary fiction presents the moral imperative in creative writing of artistry over ideas, of alchemy over analysis. To some extent, characters have to be real. To be themselves. The tactic works in the chapter (though it does feel a little bit like what I imagine happy hour at the Iowa Writers Convention to sound like) precisely because it is awkward and troubling. This Margaretta narrative is bothersome. But it’s actually in failing to realize this fictional narrative that I think Solnit shows something important. Characters are not – or not only – conduits.

(There may be a place to argue as well that the story of the story comes up in the context of the story of a break-up because the author is feeling like a bit of a Judy when she considers herself more of a Midge.)

She says that the novel was to conclude with an ascent up Mount Whitney, which she describes not as a conquest (the general understanding of a successful mountain ascent) but rather as a distancing and an increasing vastness. The essay concludes:

“The world doubles in size. Something like that happens when you really see someone, and if that’s so then it has something to do with why everyone in Vertigo keeps falling. There wasn’t any falling, any tragedy, at the center of ‘Slip,’ just moving on into this vastness.”

I cannot help but think of the way we learn to diagram plot in high school. As the shape of a mountain. Plot climbs, plot climaxes, plot concludes. (The two sides of the mountain are, notably, not of the same height. But still.) That is the Solnit thing, wandering around through vast spaces. But it does not quite work for a work of fiction. Even the most stream of consciousness, wandering, Ulyssean books have a defined space. (IE: the physical book.) And if the writer does not impose a beginning, middle, and ending the reader certainly will supply them. This provides the other key to the book’s impossibility. She has to know that what she is describing – “moving on into this vastness”  – will not be possible in written form. There is some kind of boundlessness (Intellectual, metaphysical, geographical) she is searching for that is not possible in the boundedness of a book. That can be described and then left mostly to the imagination.

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