`Getting Lost' on a journey to exquisite writing

August 07, 2005|By Beth Kephart | Beth Kephart,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ESSAYS

A Field Guide to Getting Lost

By Rebecca Solnit. Viking. 240 pages.

Rebecca Solnit is a conglomerating writer, melding borrowed history with contemplation, curiosity with a pastiche of facts, snatches of contemporary song with passages lifted from Dante. Many compare this author of books like Wanderlust and River of Shadows to Susan Sontag, but I tend to think that she has more in common with Annie Dillard, whose thoughts often turn to the power of nature and whose prose is often graced with lyricism.

Solnit's new book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, is in itself a conglomeration, a web of autobiographical essays that all circle - some more tightly than others - the notions of distance, disappearance, effacement, and exile of both the self-imposed and externally inflicted kind. "Losing things is about the familiar falling away," she explains, "getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing." It's one of those startlingly true and aphoristically quotable things that Solnit is so good at saying. She draws the line. She clarifies. And then she follows up with a tease of associations, quotes, and historical citations that can leave you lost all over again.

Let's take the essay "Two Arrowheads" as an example. In it, Solnit writes some of the most exquisite words about love, writing, and loneliness that I have ever read. To Solnit, for example, writing is "a confession to which there will be no immediate or commensurate answer, an opening statement in a conversation that falls silent or takes place long afterward without the author." Love, in her world, has three faces: "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 this hadn't." I happen to think that that is gorgeous stuff. I'm inclined to pin it up on my wall.

But finding these elegiac passages means picking one's way through a maze of anecdotes and associations that don't always add up to more than their parts, and at times feel carelessly, even insouciantly jiggered together. Over the course of its 23 pages, "Two Arrowheads" gives its readers a passing glimpse at an old love affair, a musing over the messages that wild animals bear, a memory of reading The Divine Comedy in the shade of a truck, an anecdote about lizards, a lesson on hermit crabs, and then an extended meditation that intertwines a story Solnit says she wrote, dreamlike, in her head with detailed descriptions of Alfred Hitchcock's film, Vertigo.

For Solnit, these slivers don't need to sit on a continuum of time, or in the same landscape. They don't have to involve the same characters or homes. They only need to abut one another, until a revelation is shaken free. "In essays," Solnit writes, "ideas are the protagonists, and they often develop much like characters down to the surprise denouement." I have always admired Solnit for the subjects she tackles, for the great distances she travels, for the obscure books she reads, for her spirit. I have always loved the sound of her sentences. But I have always wished, too, that she would quote less from others, that she would develop her themes by going deeper inside the ideas themselves, rather than reaching laterally to incorporate all manner of anecdote and factoid. I sense that A Field Guide to Getting Lost will frustrate some and titillate others. I for my part will return to the many passages I circled that lift right off the page like thermals and buoy the flight of the mind.

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of five non-fiction works including, most recently, Ghosts in the Garden: Reflections on Endings, Beginnings, and the Unearthing of Self, a March Book Sense pick.

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