On Far and Away, Solomon’s new book of foreign reporting.
By Peter Vigneron
Far and Away: Reporting From the Brink of Change: Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Years. (Photo: Simon & Schuster)
Andrew Solomon’s great gift is his empathy, which evolved, he writes, through his experiences with marginalization: first because he was dyslexic, later as he confronted his homosexuality, and then as he emerged from catastrophic depression. His two previous books about psychology won him both awards and a substantial readership. His new collection of reporting, Far and Away: Reporting From the Brink of Change: Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Years, marks a departure: Here, Solomon is occupied less with individual experience, and engages instead with adventure, criticism, and politics.
Far and Away, a collection of reported essays drawn largely from Solomon’s work as a writer for American magazines, is filled with his typically clear writing and deep research, but now his attention is more pointedly external. Included are articles about a controversy over an exhibit of Chinese art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and reporting about artists and dissidents in Afghanistan, Libya, Myanmar, and Brazil. In a similar way that writing allowed Solomon to explore his own struggles, travel compelled him to explore and interact with the world far beyond his areas of comfort. He calls travel a “moral imperative,” and “an exercise partly in broadening yourself and partly in defining your limits.”
Before Solomon wrote about psychology, he wrote about art. In the late 1980s and ’90s, he traveled to the Soviet Union, China, and South Africa, places where artists were responding to extraordinary political change. In 1988, he met Soviet avant-gardists becoming unimaginably wealthy at their first Western art auction, but dismayed, he writes, by the possibility that their buyers “might create a canon based on standards totally unrelated to their own.” His work from South Africa in 1993 is similarly complicated. The fall of apartheid elevated black artists, but in ways that were sometimes offensive, and often condescending and obsequious. Political repression, he writes, may inhibit creativity or inspire it, but freedom is similarly fraught. If there is an overarching argument in Far and Away, it isn’t about whether art and politics ought to stay separate or not, but that they are frequently inseparable.
While American journalists probably get places wrong as often as they get them right, deep work remains worth doing and worth paying for — both to encourage cultural exchange and because a skilled writer who reports at length may create literature.
Not all of the collection’s entries are about art, and Far and Away includes essays from Cambodia, Greenland, Senegal, Indonesia, and Rwanda that were first published in The Noonday Demon and Far From the Tree. In both of those books, Solomon was willing to poke fun at activists who had muddled their cause and the truth, and it would be a serious mistake to confuse his extraordinary empathy with soft-headedness. That’s doubly true for Solomon the critic: Of one workshop in South Africa, which was “more focused on social reconciliation than good art,” he writes that “everyone was talking, laughing, and having a good time; the smell of paint was heady, the conviviality stirring. The same result could equally easily have been realized at a cooking class.”
Solomon���s skill as a critic is one reason Far and Away succeeds; another reason may be his skill at deception. Solomon is a reporter who makes great reporting appear simple: He meets people, he is introduced to their friends and colleagues, their detractors, and tells what they have said. Each source poses questions addressed by the next, and the next, which gives the reader a feeling of being along for the trip. Like other great journalists he is able to make esoteric or boring subjects feel urgent and fascinating. But in real life things don’t happen in comprehensible sequences, ideas don’t arrange themselves, and it is easy to confuse what is profound with what is insipid. Most reporters recognize, when it is time to write, that creating a quality of straightforwardness is serious labor; in Solomon’s writing, that labor is hidden.
Solomon’s book is as much a guide to writing as an account of his travels; as he writes, “Even the most intensively reported pieces do not reflect expertise in their locations.” That’s a warning about overwriting, and that writing well often happens when the writer is clear about his limits. Solomon is not a writer of especially vivid scenes or descriptions, but he writes excellent sentences because he reports deeply and understands human nature. In that way, Far and Away is a reminder that, although foreign reporting isn’t easy, and that American journalists probably get places wrong as often as they get them right, deep work is worth doing and worth paying for, both to encourage cultural exchange and because a skilled writer who reports at length may create literature.
Even so, Far and Away isn’t totally coherent as a book of travel writing, and it isn’t a book of criticism. I think Solomon is every bit as good as the best current American magazine writers, but this book isn’t as well curated as Janet Malcolm’s essays have been, nor does it reveal as much about the direction of Solomon’s career as, for example, Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours does about his. It mixes reporting for places such as the New York TimesMagazine and The New Yorker, on one hand, and commercial travel pieces on the other. These latter pieces seem personally important to Solomon and are pleasant to read, but they are about luxury vacations and can feel rather jarring alongside his other work. (I wished they’d been replaced with more reporting.)
Before reading Far and Away, I spent the better part of the winter entranced by Far From the Tree, for which there aren’t enough superlatives. That book received mild critiques from Kathryn Schulz and others for failing to deliver on its central thesis, which is that people with significant disabilities or differences often create their own kinds of identity politics. (In the case of the neurodiversity movement this seemed true, and less convincing in his sections about children of rape and juvenile criminals.)
But the critique has struck me as beside the point: Far From the Tree’s strength was Solomon’s ability to tell stories about people — and to demonstrate how people with profoundly disparate experiences nonetheless suffer and celebrate like everyone else. Solomon is a smart and lucid guide through such stories, as he is in Far and Away; in the end, whether either book coheres thematically is probably a concern for whoever at his publishing house approves book proposals. For readers who know Solomon for his deep reporting and careful studies of human nature, it will not be.