I was sitting at the bar in a room with high wooden ceilings from the 1920s. There was an elk head on the wall and words were coming out of it: “We barely survive catastrophe every day… the collision of two cells from which you began… unthinkable coupling… we live inside each other’s stories.”
It was speaking in a woman’s voice, that of a ventriloquist who can throw her voice into a dead elk as well as living human heads. The room was full of people. She can throw her voice into a book where it remains mute until someone opens the book and hears a rarified stream of consciousness — in this case, The Faraway Nearby (2013). “I digress because everything is connected….” I have a weakness for that sort of thing, or maybe it’s a strength, depending on your point of view. A spider web is very strong, relatively speaking, as it mimics a condition of intricate connections.
To pursue those mental associations requires some finesse. The writer in question, Rebecca Solnit, doesn’t need a plot; her essays are the controlled explorations of an inquiring mind. She has a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley, numerous books, and I have seen her referred to as a cultural historian. She reminds me of Montaigne, who is said to have invented the personal essay in the 1500s. There was some reference to shoes, “like a belief wearing out.”
The reading was in the Elks Lodge downtown on Post Street. SF Playhouse has a theater on the floor below — I saw a play there a few months ago (reasons to be pretty by Neil Labute). I had never been in this room, however. There is a saltwater swimming pool in the building; I was informed of this by a friendly Elk at the bar. The crowd was talking, drinking, and milling about for nearly an hour before Ms. Solnit read from The Faraway Nearby, during which time Dawn Oberg was on the piano and singing. She was nearby, but sounded far away because of the noise in the room. Nevertheless, piano notes inhabited the background of each person’s conversation.
When Ms. Solnit started reading, she was hidden from me by a pillar, hence the talking elk head. She mentioned the Elks Lodge as a fraternal organization with a lot of empathy. Her book is described as “an exploration of empathy.” It touches on apricots, an ailing mother, and her own mortality, among other things. (Kevin Hunsanger of Green Apple Books — which co-sponsored the reading — is an Elk). She paid her respects to independent booksellers and readers, “without whom I’m nothing.” There was reference to “some of the ornaments but not the architecture of the book.” When she asked an audience in another town, “Do you want coherent narration or jewels?” the people ended up arguing about it.
Rebecca Solnit has a lovely voice and a mental refinement which is not often seen, in my opinion. “The labyrinth by which sounds enter the mind… to be a sound traveling towards the mind… which hears you.” “We live inside each other’s thoughts and words.” She said that “vanity” was translated from Hebrew as “fleeting breath.”
A woman friend of mine found her “too writerly,” saying “it didn’t ring true.” I differ to beg, as another friend of mine says. I think that writers whose work rings true are often those who incorporate subtlety and complication, because reality is subtle and complex. The hardcore crowd would like to reduce it to something they could drown in a bathtub. Kiss kiss, bang bang. Everything is cut and dry and cut to the chase – that’s why they call it fiction.
But I digress. Ms. Solnit is perfectly capable of ringing the cracked bell of realism, and she has been compared to Joan Didion with her journalism from the edge of manifest destiny. I found some long articles she wrote for the London Review of Books about Los Angeles and the desert, where she refers to
…a kind of cowboy ethos that society is optional and every man should fend for himself. This vast space was where people stepped out of society when their domestic lives failed or the law was after them. The ethos ignores the huge federal subsidies that support cattle-growing, logging and mining, just as Republican tax-cutters overlook the fact that the military they wish to expand consumes a grotesque proportion of tax revenue.
Years ago she was an art critic and considered moving to Los Angeles. However,
… when I got home I would find that the hours I’d spent negotiating freeway merge lanes and entrances and exits and parking garages was, in some mysterious way, more memorable than the museums. I was supposed to have a head full of paintings or installations, but instead, I was preoccupied with the anonymously ugly spaces that are not on the official register of what any place is supposed to be.
I recently spent a few days in Los Angeles and came away with a sense of Greek statues in the middle of a crowded freeway. Solnit also wrote Infinite City (2010), which is when I first tuned in to her writing (rather late). It’s about San Francisco, where she has lived since 1980, and includes some idiosyncratic maps.
Later in the LA article she goes off on a tangent about men and language:
Throughout most of the English-speaking world, citizens speak English like, well, native speakers, and the ability to speak well is a pleasure and a power. But from George W. Bush on down, the United States, especially its male portion, is fraught with inarticulateness and often committed to it as well. Jane Tompkins, in West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, traces some of this to a frank distrust of language and an association of speaking with opening up, compromising and otherwise surrendering.
There are men who use a limited vocabulary as a mask to hide behind, and there are women who have their own facades to hide behind. If some men think it is too feminine to talk, what about the macho motor-mouths who won’t shut up? She wrote an article about them: “Men Explain Things to Me” (August 20, 2012). “The out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.”
My first thought: She hasn’t talked to very many college girls. Second thought: She never met my grandmother (on my father’s side). Third thought: She’s right about this being a common characteristic of some men, but other men have to deal with it too. Once, I was having breakfast at a yoga retreat in the same room as a holy man who hadn’t spoken in half a century (he wasn’t being macho). A couple of older retired guys sat down across from me and one of them started talking. He was friendly at first, but in no time was saying things like, “Obama is a socialist.” He spoke in the manner she refers to. I said I thought the President was controlled by Wall Street. That didn’t phase him, brushing off an inconvenient fact like a fly and saying, “That was before.” I decided not to argue in a spiritual setting. The “explainer” was there for a seminar about living in the present.
Ms. Solnit also writes for TomDispatch.com, including an article about Edward Snowden, who blew the whistle on the National Security Agency’s illegal surveillance programs: “Prometheus Among the Cannibals.”
I find her writing courageous and intelligent. After the reading from her latest book, a phrase was lingering in my mind, “… within the limits of her timidities….” It struck me how far removed she was from that condition.
- Read some of the reviews: New York Times | Boston Globe | Los Angeles Times | Mother Jones
- Listen to an interview on NPR
Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).