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What Should an Essay Do?

Two new collections reinvent the form

Wikimedia Commons/pd-old

Near the end of The Faraway Nearby—a collage-style memoir that brings together history and myth, science and confession—Rebecca Solnit describes an arctic sled made of frozen meat and bones. It falls to pieces during a sudden heat wave when the dogs devour its newly thawed parts. What’s remarkable about the image isn’t just its macabre silhouette but the kind of restless thinking it generates. Solnit doesn’t deploy the sled as a metaphoric vehicle for any single message; she uses it to consider multiple truths at once: how suddenly a whole can dissolve into its parts, how our hungers compel us to destroy what we need, and how our most precious objects fall apart for reasons we can’t predict or forestall.

Throughout The Faraway Nearby, Solnit draws analogies between disparate objects and anecdotes in order to make newly available—thawed, edible—those connections she finds between them. She presents these connections as a series of consolations: “Pared back to its bare bones,” Solnit writes, “this book is a history of an emergency and the stories that kept me company then.” The “emergency” is her mother’s dementia, and its urgency reminds us that the associative structure of The Faraway Nearby is less about intellectual virtuosity and more about survival. Solnit finds echoes across registers in order to feel less alone.

Her narrative is interwoven with forays into history and myth, moving between leprosy and Frankenstein, Che Guevara and the myth of Psyche, ancient Inuit tradition and Icelandic modern art. Her most structurally conspicuous excursion spans the entire book as a single line of italicized text running across the bottom of each page, a kind of mythic ticker tape. “Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds,” it begins, and proceeds to chart the many ways we can be sustained by sadness.

In structural terms, The Faraway Nearby is an experiment in applying the associative liberties of the essay genre to an entire book: accumulation, juxtaposition, the organizing possibilities of metaphor. These techniques are ways in which the essay has always linked the private confessional to the communal; Solnit simply asks them to span across the arc of a longer story and carry particular emotional weight. Put another way: Associative thinking is her way of drinking tears.

As a genre grounded in productive uncertainty—collage rather than argument, exploration rather than assertion—the essay is constantly posing the conundrum of its own existence: What should an essay do? What should it offer? It finds its etymological roots in the old French essai: to attempt. It blends inquiry and confession into a hybrid weave that deepens each. It draws personal material into public mattering.

PD/Wikimedia Commons
Michel de Montaigne

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed called “The Essayfication of Everything,” Christy Wampole traces these exploratory practices back to Montaigne—godfather of the essay and patron saint of strange conceptual constellations—in examining how the modern essay has updated an older mode of assemblage: “Banal, everyday phenomena—what we eat, things upon which we stumble, things that Pinterest us—rub elbows implicitly with the Big Questions: What are the implications of the human experience? What is the meaning of life?” Solnit’s book forces us to confront that these questions of formal construction—How is the essay assembled? How do its parts rub elbows?—are also questions of emotional motivation: What drives the essayist toward these acts of assemblage? What abiding hungers make us want to link the Big and the banal?

Michelle Orange’s recent debut essay collection, This is Running for Your Life, is another set of acrobatic associations fueled by longing. While Solnit and Orange both spin elaborate associative webs, they use very different materials: Solnit draws on nature and the body and legend; Orange talks about Internet culture and the technological trappings of our zeitgeist. Both authors explore how metaphor can work on a scale much larger than the sentence. They operate under the belief that an entire journey can be guided by metaphor, that writing about various subjects together can illuminate some productive relation—or useful friction—between them.

Like Solnit, Orange offers glimpses of the emotional root structure of her own associative tendencies, demonstrating how excavating analogies everywhere is a form of generosity but also a symptom of hunger: for sense, for connection, for accumulation. While Solnit grounds her associative gathering in emotional crisis (“the stories that kept me company”), Orange writes about a more cultural—less strictly personal—hunger. She writes about what it means to live in a world mediated by all kinds of artifice and invention—digital dreaming and cinematic dreaming and plain-old daydreaming. She writes about wanting to fuse with the “sublimity” of Michael Jackson’s moving body. She writes about a photo of people taking photos of President Obama dancing. She writes with a voice whose hawkish attention is fueled by an abiding—and communal—ache.

These books live in different landscapes. Solnit writes about her dying mother, and glass columns of glacial melt, and making use of rotting apricots, and walking a dark labyrinth in a bright climate; Orange writes about the Twittersphere, and getting lost between rows of barbed wire in Beirut, and loving Ethan Hawke’s face. Solnit’s mode is lyric; Orange’s is digital. Solnit was born in the early 1960s, Orange in the late 1970s. Solnit’s book is self-consciously labyrinthine; Orange’s evokes a widening gyre of desperate Google searches. Orange’s voice is less elegiac and more contortionist—less ice dance, more triple-lutz. But both books offer their own versions of a similar lesson, one implied by Solnit’s title: that the distance between nearby and faraway is often traversed with alarming ease.1

Both writers use metaphor to beckon the faraway closer, fashioning linkages between seemingly distant objects: frozen meat and narrative, psychiatry and warfare, cannibalism and song. Both take up the collage mode with particular ferocity, not only juxtaposing faraway abstractions with proximate materials, but implicitly insisting on associative glue as a substitute for narrative spine. Instead of telling the straight story of memoir, they say: This is the story of how my mind moves. Both claim the prerogative of juxtaposition. They engage the structure of fugue and kaleidoscopes and echolocation. They circle vast arrays of artifacts in hopes that these artifacts might share their secrets, and that the distortions of their Chinese whispering might hold promise.

But both books also illuminate the perils of their own associative excursions, the ways in which these forays maintain a tenuous grasp on rigor and momentum. When does associative thinking feel productive—establishing important connections, peeling away layers, dissolving boundaries between registers—and when does it feel evasive, gliding over one idea too quickly in order to tackle the next?

Solnit poses a version of this question when she returns to the story of her beloved meat sled in order to question its veracity, confessing that “stories [can] fall apart on you like the melting sled that might not have ever existed.” The sled becomes a metaphor for the fragility of metaphor itself. Solnit acknowledges that we build elaborate metaphoric structures in order to make ourselves feel less alone—to make our problems feel connected to the larger problems of the world—but she also acknowledges that these connections are sometimes illusory, that they clutch at the placebo consolation of hollow comparison.

Orange has something to say about loneliness, too, and how association can’t always dissolve it: We often find loneliness gazing back at us from those corners where we’ve tried to take refuge from it. Orange writes about the painful divide between our private selves and our carefully constructed digital personas, how we eat raspberry sorbet from the carton while tweeting the day’s workout stats.2 At the center of her book is a stubborn fascination with how imperfectly we know one another and our own collective past. But there is a deep tenderness in how she picks apart our imperfection—a beating heart delivering oxygen to her acrobatic intellect—and it’s this quality of intelligent tenderness that connects her voice most palpably to Solnit’s. Both women are writing about isolation and what might render it porous: Orange looks at how our digital bonds both deepen our isolation and express a desire to transcend it; Solnit looks at art and illness and myth as forces that connect us even as they expose how badly we keep needing this connection.

Solnit reminds us of the persistence of this need whenever she brings The Faraway Nearby back to its personal material. Beneath it all, the book is fundamentally an act of reckoning—Solnit’s attempt to come to terms with her mother’s illness and with their difficult relationship. “If I could have warned her,” Solnit admits, “I might have canceled my own existence.” The book begins and ends with her mother, and there is an emotional gravity in this circular structure. Solnit goes everywhere—to Iceland, to the end of the world, to the end of night—and still returns to her particular self, her particular mother, their particularly difficult way of loving each other.

Her mythic ticker tape—the italicized text at the bottom of her pages—reaches a sublime functionality during the most difficult moments of this emotional return. When Solnit admits that her mother’s illness—the vulnerability of her dementia—actually brought them closer together, the italicized text offers an obliquely resonant myth of fantastic animals stripped of their animal garments: “when they strip naked, it’s not so much that they’re human, but that they are no longer so different, and the distance between them can be closed by desire.” In this moment, two stories hum together—myth and mother. It’s collage at its finest.

If Solnit’s book explores how we might bring the faraway more near—through travel, imagination, metaphor, empathy—then her portrayal of her mother demonstrates how we must reconcile ourselves to another kind of “faraway nearby”: What is close is often alien. This truth can feel lonely or treacherous, but it’s also full of possibility: What’s close at hand can be once again strange, multiple, and unfamiliar, worthy of examination and ultimately kindness.

  1. Solnit describes “the faraway” as salve, as a stance of clarified perspective (“He often photographed from far away, not to distance himself, but to see the patterns”) and an escape (“When the near capsized like a ship, the far swept me up”).

  2. I can tell you the precise moments when I fell in love with Orange. It was when she talked about doing “hard time in front of the mirror” as a teenager (225); and when she talked about spending New Year’s Eve alone, finding she had “no real answer for the love of a good man,” so she watched two movies that disappointed her (“a double-bill bummer royale”) and knelt beside her bed to pray.