A woman in her late-thirties dies alone in a London bedsit and her friends reflect. In another time, another place, a daughter deals with her mother’s dementia and ponders a life lived largely in a state of war with her. Two stories, two story-tellers. Multiply these stories by millions, billions, countless narrative arcs against the blue sky of human history. Where does reality start and the story about it end? How great is the gap between the personal biography held close and the one that is told. Are we in fact not individuals as we see it, but simply atoms and a collection of our and other people’s stories?
When Joyce Vincent died mysteriously in her London flat in 2003, she was connected to many people. She had friends, work colleagues, lovers. She had jobs. She socialised. She made music. She laughed and she cried. Yet, she stayed in that flat for three years after her death before anyone bothered to find her. Her body had decomposed to not much more than a stain on the carpet. The TV was still on, loud, the heating still pumped. She was surrounded by half wrapped Christmas presents.
Elsewhere, American writer Rebecca Solnit was facing a mother rapidly descending. The women who had become her nemesis (“for mothers, some mothers, my mother, daughters are division and sons are multiplication”, she writes) was needing her help. She embarked on a journey of memory and a piecing together of her own life. As her mother’s light waned and hers, ironically, waxed. She was searching for meaning – a not uncommon quest – and she found not herself as she thought but bits of herself captured in stories.
In Carol Morley’s masterful “Dreams of a Life”, the story of Joyce Vincent is told and retold by many. Descriptions and interpretations intersect and tangle like jungle vines. A clear line cannot be found. Those who were touched by her life contradict each other about her personality, talents, life details, motivations, career, family and the facts surrounding her death. None, seemingly, get her entirely right. Occasionally the speakers contradict themselves, making their own stories as we watch. Was she with that guy at the time? What was her job then really? Why did she leave? When was she living there? Did I know her then? Did I go to that party? And, most poignantly, when did she die?
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“Where does a story begin?” writes Solnit in “The Faraway Nearby”, as she attempts to find her own. “The fiction is that they do, and end, rather than the stuff of a story is just a cup of water scooped from the sea and poured back in.” Rather than making our own personal tales as we might think, its seems the stories make us, that we are just conduits for a narrative line that was born before we were and that moves on into other lives after we die. Solnit draws numerous poetic metaphors from a rubbish tip of life’s detritus; rotting apricots from her mother’s tree, Icelandic ice-scapes and nursing home décor. And she concludes sadly that her mother, like us all, “added up her own life over and over, but the sums were never quite the same. Whose are? It’s like measuring your shadow”
“What were some of the other stories of who she was? Could she have told it another way and, would that have given her another life?”
For Joyce Vincent’s network, as for Solnit’s mother the stories live on even though the vessel that inspired, shaped, carried them, is now broken or gone. Endurable those gossamer threads may be, but they are all tangled somewhere. As truths they are all wrong. In fact, there is no right. “Everyone has their secrets”, notes one friend of Vincent wistfully. “You don’t really know people,” says another. That’s perhaps the only truth to emerge.
Technically, both “Dreams of a Life” and “The Faraway Nearby” are substantial. In the former, brilliant use is made of recreations, understandable given the subject. Actress Zawe Ashton gives a charismatic performance as Joyce Vincent. In fact, so good is the production value of the recreations, it’s sometimes difficult to know whether this is a non-fiction or fiction film. This ambivalence powerfully underlines the ambiguities the ripple unsettlingly beneath. The reconstructed scenes of Joyce’s flat after her death is known, as the cleaning crew moves through it, following pieces of her life back to their apparent source as they are fingered by plastic-suited cleaners and dropped into rubbish bags are particularly powerful and sad.
Solnit plucks metaphors like a bower bird collects shiny objects. Even though there are few straight lines or rounded off chapters, the prose rills and lilts along in refreshing brooks of words, often obliging the reader to stop and admire another finely constructed mental view. Part memoir, part biography, part philosophy and yes, inevitably, part fiction, “The Faraway Nearby” is always literary and never flops into self-help platitudes or pop psychology.
The power of stories has of course its own story. We are obsessive arrangers of data into narrative packages. The modern media industry, PR, advertising, lobbying, politics, publishing, cinema and so much else orbits a core need for a compelling story-line. By telling beautiful, evocative and approachable stories about stories, both these works lift the veil on the mental machinery that runs us all.
Title – Dreams of a Life
Makers – Cannon and Morley/ Soho Moon Pictures
How to catch it – DVD
Couch Time – 91 Mins.
High Point – Multi-layered production
Low Point – Uninteresting extras
Extras – Yes
Title: The Faraway Nearby
Author: Rebecca Solnit
Publisher: Viking Adult
Available: June 2013
High Point – Beautiful word images
Low Point – Can be indulgent, overly personalised