The boat had gotten us to dinner, but after the risotto and the wine we decided to pick our way back through the dark traffic-free streets, and I remember stopping to look at the menu in the window of a plausible-looking restaurant on my left. Twenty minutes later I slowed to read a second menu, this time on my right. The waiters were putting up the chairs, but something seemed familiar, and I looked again: same place. Well, there are no prizes for getting lost in Venice. Walking in circles is what you’re supposed to do–one of the clichés within which any visitor to that city will find himself. So maybe it says something about Rebecca Solnit’s new book that it doesn’t contain such a moment. Or maybe that says something about me–that before reading it I thought, from its title alone, that I already knew where this book would take me.
But A Field Guide to Getting Lost is without clichés: no Venice, no flâneurs and only the slimmest of references to the labyrinth. In her opening chapter Solnit sketches an aesthetic of losing yourself, one that starts with the Passover ritual of leaving a door open for Elijah. Though for her what matters isn’t “that Elijah might show up someday. The important thing is that the doors are left open to the dark.” This is the most familiar part of her book, in which she describes the childhood need to get lost in safety–the kind of getting lost that Venice allows–and links the “art of being at home in the unknown” to Keats’s theory of Negative Capability, his belief that artistic creation depends on the ability to step outside the self, to see beyond the limits of one’s assumptions. Getting physically lost, however, is only a prelude to the more important experience of getting psychically lost, and Solnit writes evocatively of nights on the road, alone in strange motels “that furnish a reprieve from my own biography, when…I have lost myself though I know where I am.” And the next chapters map the contours of a land that lies even beyond that, where the sense of being lost shades into a sense of loss itself.
Most of the ways people lose themselves have little to do with the bodily experience of not finding one’s way. That’s at most a starting point, as it was for the conquistador Cabeza de Vaca, who in 1527 “entered the realm of the utter unknown” through the two gates of “honor and greed.” His wanderings took him from years of slavery to Florida to Texas and New Mexico, with the self “pared back to nothing, no language, no clothes, no weapons, no power.” When after a decade he finally encountered some other Spaniards, he could see them only as thieves who, in his words, “bestowed nothing on anyone.” For Solnit he’s someone who “ceased to be lost not by returning but by turning into something else.” Cabeza de Vaca found a second self; he lost enough to survive.
Solnit’s book provides something like a taxonomy of loss. There is the loss of one’s history, which her immigrant ancestors experienced in the move through Ellis Island. There’s the loss of which country music sings: “not the modern stuff that is mostly sentimental pop with fiddles and a twang, but the older tunes” that dwell on the “aftermath” of heartbreak. There is the loss of home and childhood, which one needs to lose, and there are lost friends, companions one may lose because they have first lost themselves. Or one can lose oneself to others, as Kim Novak’s character does in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a movie that inspires some of Solnit’s best pages and whose real subject, she suggests, is her home city of San Francisco. Nor is that sense of loss limited to the human, for at the end of the book Solnit reflects on the earth’s lost species, the passenger pigeons and Santa Barbara song sparrows and “the blue pike of the Great Lakes gone extinct right about when men first walked on the moon.”
Solnit’s title teases us with rigor. Can this taxonomy really be as comprehensive as something like the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms? But her distinctions aren’t so firmly drawn as mycology requires, and so she alternates chapters with titles like “Daisy Chains” and “Two Arrowheads” with a series of others all named “The Blue of Distance.” There’s some difference between them, with the former veering toward autobiography and the latter leaning into the historical. Still, in reading I felt if not lost then at least perplexed by the book’s arrangement: wondering why certain experiences belonged in one loosely structured chapter and not another; and wanting to know if the book was conceived as a single work or assembled from already existing fragments. Solnit maintains a consistent tone, and her last pages do feel like an ending, a diminuendo of the emotions, with “all the sea spreading far and then farther.” Yet that ending lacks any sense of inevitability; why stop there?
For my part, I could easily have lost myself in this book for 100 more pages. Solnit’s work at its best is as fresh as an orange, and over the past dozen years this prolific Californian has produced a series of consistently provocative books. Savage Dreams (1994) describes what she calls the “hidden wars of the American West,” the wars over land use and water rights and the claims of indigenous peoples. Wanderlust (2000) defines itself as “a history of walking” that makes some predictable stops–Wordsworth, pilgrimage–but also asks its readers to consider the protest march as a kind of collective stroll. And Solnit herself presents an interesting profile: a committed urbanist and an outdoorswoman, an environmentalist who knows how to shoot and is also at home with the most sophisticated forms of contemporary art. She’s been compared to both Annie Dillard and Susan Sontag and seems, weirdly, to combine them–the naturalist and the modernist–while being more conversant with an archive than either.
Solnit’s boldest and most important book to date is River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (2003), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism. Born in Britain, Muybridge arrived in San Francisco in 1855 and set up as a bookseller. Soon he was taking photographs as well, and in 1877 he developed the high-speed shutter. Muybridge first used that equipment to take pictures of horses in motion, and the story goes that he did it to win a bet for railroad magnate Leland Stanford, who is said to have wagered that at certain points in its stride a trotter had all four feet off the ground at once. Solnit prints the legend but discounts it, and instead links the robber baron’s funding of Muybridge’s experiments to his later deed of gift for Stanford University, which specified his interest in engineering and applied science. But River of Shadows offers much more than an account of stop-action photography. Taking her cue from the subjects of Muybridge’s oeuvre, Solnit provides an essay on the history of California that moves from Yosemite to the octopus of the railroad, from the state’s Indian wars to the astonishing growth of San Francisco. And it makes the startling claim that Muybridge’s “annihilation of time and space” lies at the heart of California’s modern identity, insofar as it points toward the movies on the one hand and, through his alliance with Stanford, toward Silicon Valley on the other.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a smaller book and in many ways less bold, but it stands out for Solnit’s willingness to push harder on her language than she has ever before. Although she’s never hidden behind the scrim of objectivity, even her 1997 Irish travel narrative, A Book of Migrations, is touched by a reticence at odds with its genre. Here she is far more personal, more direct. She now has the confidence to allow her life and presence to assume greater narrative weight, whether she’s evoking a punked-out adolescence, recalling a small shocking encounter with her father or even describing the mind-cleansing pleasures of a long drive, of “roads whose mesas and diners were always the same and whose light and clouds and weather never were.” And as this passage suggests, Solnit’s prose here glistens like a snake with a new skin. In her earlier work you hardly ever noticed a sentence. Now her language demands a different level of attention, as though it were trying to achieve a new adequacy to the physical world it describes. Her style is not as mannered or as memorable as that of Joan Didion, and because of that her version of California may never gain the traction it deserves. Yet it is every bit as suggestive.
Solnit once wrote that she aspires to the kind of work called “hybrid,” in which “public life spills over into personal anecdote, emotion evolves into analysis,” a form of writing that takes its inspiration from the meander and flow of conversation. In this book she compares the writing of fiction and expository prose, and she notes, “In essays, ideas are the protagonists, and they often develop much like characters.” She has an enviable ability to transform those ideas into the vehicles of narrative, and her own work resembles a richly conceived character, capable of sudden turns and sharp twists, changing direction from book to book and page to page in ways that, in retrospect, are nevertheless consistent with what she’s done before. A Field Guide to Getting Lost makes only a modest claim. Yet it has something close to perfect pitch, an intermezzo in an increasingly impressive career.