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.

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Sigal Samuel’s Hermeneutics

mystics of mile endIn Sigal Samuel’s recent novel The Mystics of Mile End everyone is looking for a message. There’s the Meyer family, with David interpreting the vague murmurs of his erratic heart; his son Lev deciphering the flower caught in his teacher’s bicycle; and his daughter Samara seeking keys to climb the Tree of Life in order to fulfill her Kabbalistic journey. Lev and Samara’s childhood friend Alex listens to everything from stars to dishwashers in the attempt to intercept messages from extraterrestrial life. And Mr. Katz hooks up a series of tin can telephones in his old oak tree presumably in order to receive messages from God.

What drives this novel is not necessarily religious crisis, but rather a crisis of interpretation. No one is stricken with lack of faith per se, that ever-present theme of Protestantism. (Even budding astronomer Alex, an atheist, is portrayed as a most unshakable believer in life beyond planet Earth.) Instead, they employ their faith in God, logic, intellectual discovery, scientific instruments, etc., to decode symbols they encounter. The question is not “Is there a God?” but rather, can we ever reliably interpret the messages we receive? Follow-up question, do those messages ever lead to some understanding of what lies beyond us?

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Haruki Murakami and Your Love Life as Metaphor

As usual, this year brought some Nobel buzz for Japanese author Haruki Murakami, who is best known in North America for works such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, and 1Q84. Also as usual, he did not win, much to the disappointment of his devoted fans.

It so happens that I spent much of the weeks leading up to giving birth lying on the couch rereading his novels. Not in preparation for news from Sweden but because I wanted to finally deal with them systematically, rather than picking up a novel every few years and racing through, only to end up on the last page, scratching my head and wondering “What the hell just happened here?”

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The Millennium Trilogy and Relearning to Read the “Readerly” Text

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There was not – if I’m being honest – much thought behind my decision to suddenly drop everything nothing and finally read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Not that I insist on putting too much thought into one’s choice of reading material. In fact, I would call myself a proponent of the spin-around-in-bookshop-and-point strategy of literary selection. But I had in fact made myself a post-dissertation reading list full of gems that I have been meaning to enjoy for years. (PS – I finished my dissertation. I’m a doctor. A book doctor.) On the list were many names (Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Zadie Smith, Somerset Maugham, Marlon James) but Stieg Larsson, certainly not. This absence was based on nothing other than the fact that, since I’d been living without him for this long, I could go on doing so. In fact, this is the only sound reason for not reading anything ever.

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