A Defense of Difference (and Sentimentality)

ImageReading Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon’s epic tome on what he calls “horizontal identities” – conditions or situations that link people across familial, racial, and national categories – is a little bit like eating a gigantic ice-cream sundae: it’s delicious and you never want it to end at the same time that it’s overwhelming and at every moment you feel you might need to take a break.  What makes this book, which covers some very difficult topics in painstaking detail, both readable and enjoyable is Solomon’s gorgeous prose and his deeply empathetic sensitivity to his subjects.  Far From the Tree chronicles families contending with deafness, dwarfism, Down Syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple disabilities, prodigiousness, children born of rape, children who commit crimes, and transgender issues.  Solomon operates from the premise that, as he puts it, “Difference unites us….to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.”  And as I read each of his chapters, none of which have any direct bearing on my own life, I nonetheless found myself relating to the people he profiled through this very premise.  It seems the ways in which people are different end up being very much the same.

Part of the success of the book is attributable to Solomon’s method.  He uses both statistical and historical exposition and personal anecdotes and stories to illustrate the complexity of each situation he covers, because, as he writes, “numbers imply trends, while stories acknowledge chaos.”  The book, while clearly written and perfectly organized, does not wrap its conclusions up in a neat little bow, but allows the kind of difference which is its very center to proliferate.  No one responds in exactly the same way to the same situation, or maybe its that no one’s situation is exactly the same, despite similarities, and Solomon includes as much variation as he can.  It’s not exactly chaos, since he controls it with an expert hand, but it’s definitely as close as one could get to experiencing human thought and emotion in its infinite variety.

This is another long book (over 700 pages, plus notes and bibliography), and it would be impossible here to chronicle all the myriad ways in which is succeeds (and the few in which it is less successful), but suffice it to say that as I read, in particular, the chapters on physical disabilities, it caused me to question some of my deeply held assumptions both about deaf people and dwarves, say, but also about myself.  This is a book that is as much about parenting and families as it is about medical and social outliers, and in that sense almost anybody will be affected by its conclusions and revelations.  And insofar as Solomon’s primary premise, about the ubiquity of difference, is true, we all can also see ourselves in the differences he describes, though ours may differ by shape or degree.

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Andrew Solomon

One of the greatest pleasures of this book, however, has nothing to do with its substance.  I’ve rarely read prose as rich or precise as Solomon’s; the only  other writer I can compare him to is Lorrie Moore, who is fearless in her prose in a similar way.  A tiny, tiny example, drawn from his chapter on prodigies, describing one of the musical prodigies he chronicles: “You may reach into his joy and pull out a surprising handful of sorrow, but when you examine that sorrow, you find it suffused with particles of joy.”  I mean, who writes like that?  It’s absolutely transcendent, and just the experience of reading the words on the page was often as great a delight as the things described therein.

It may sound strange to describe a book that chronicles such difficult subject matter, that I had to put down more than once out of emotion or frustration, as a delight.  But it transforms its difficulty into delight in a magical way that I can’t quite pinpoint.  This, of course, is the alchemy of truly great writing.  The magic is catalyzed by Solomon’s willingness to engage in (I won’t say indulge in, because it suggests a negative valence) sentimentality.  He writes, “I am unabashed by this book’s occasional whiff of rapture and reject the idea that beauty is the enemy of truth, or that pain can’t be the hare to joy’s tortoise.”  Insofar as he succeeds, yet another of the accomplishments of this book is that it repudiates myths of scientific and journalistic objectivity and a culture of irony at the same time.   The great strength of this book is its lack of embarrassment in the face of the rapturous, the sentimental, and the beautiful, all things we encounter far too rarely in literature or in life.

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