In the (Social) Distance: Being Both a Meditation on General Loneliness and a Brief Review of Hernan Diaz’s Novel
Over the past couple months I, like the great majority of Americans, have been confronted with loneliness, forced to live it and ponder it.
I live in a two-bedroom apartment and sit typing this piece of writing in the bedroom that I have set aside as something resembling an office. My chair, and me in it, face the wall that is the northernmost wall of the apartment. To get from this wall to the southernmost wall of my apartment, heel to toe, takes me exactly 44 lengths of my feet. My feet are size 11’s, which puts the length of my apartment at roughly 40 feet. According to this same method of measurement, the apartment in which I write what will turn into something of a review is roughly 20 feet wide.
That puts the total area of my apartment at around 800 feet. I do have an outside balcony, and it’s 25 or so square feet probably cancel out, roughly, the space that is taken up by my apartment’s interior walls. In this apartment I have roughly 800 feet in which to live and breathe and have my being.
The average apartment size both in the U.S. and the Midwest, weirdly enough, is 882 feet, according to RentCafe.com, a place, incidentally, that seems like it would be one of the absolute worst places to have a cup of coffee that I can imagine. So, my apartment is not too far from the average apartment size in my region or country. What’s more, according to the report linked above, average apartment size has been declining for the last decade, while average rent, on the other hand, has increased. This is not news to most Americans, but when it comes to housing as well as so many other areas, we are being charged more and more for less and less.
So here the author sits, along with many of his readers: cramped, poor, and lonely.
If I had the money, I know what I would do. I would buy some land in northern Minnesota – 40 acres, say, of jack pine, birch, tamarack – and I would build a larger-than-800sqft house on that land, a piece of land that abutted a lake system or river, as well as a state or national forest, so that I could leave this sizable house and start walking or paddling, and not stop for a long time if I didn’t want to. If I had the money, I would buy space for myself.
I started this piece of writing with an observation about loneliness, and so far, all I’ve managed to say is that if I had more money, I’d buy more solitude. But imagined purchasable solitude, in my mind, can be an effective remedy for loneliness.
This attitude and impulse is not unique to me. The U.S. famously has a strong tradition of anti-urban thought running through its history, with lots of it tied closely to a romantic attachment to vast expanses of unpeopled land. It’s one of our founding myths, and one that has stuck around and continues to make its presence known in various cultural productions.
Perhaps the most popular vehicle for this particular American myth has been the Western. From the Leatherstocking Tales, dime novels, pulp cowboys, and Louis L’Amour, to John Wayne and Clint Eastwood on the big screen in the middle of the century, to contemporary hit TV shows like Deadwood and Longmire, to landscapes by Frederic Remington, to compositions by composers such as Aaron Copland, Marty Robbins, and Cole Porter, authors, filmmakers, visual artists, and composers, among others, have used the wide open spaces of the American West as a stage from which to offer their interpretations of America’s national psyche. These mediated expanses on the screen, page, canvas, and album, have also allowed city-dwellers and town-dwellers all over the country to assume the role of spatial escapees for the duration of an hour or two.
Jane Tompkins says it well in the following way: “[t]he Western answers a need to get out of [the] apartment and into fresh air, sunlight, blue sky, and open space…It seems to offer escape from the conditions of life in modern industrial society” (1). So often, the Western presents solitude in open spaces as the answer to alienation.
But really good Westerns manage to present this myth and its underlying impulse to us without leaving out their darker implications. My personal favorite of all Western movies, Lonely Are the Brave, does this in the title alone, and the rest of the movie extends that idea of how adherents to the myth(s) of the Western receive loneliness as payment for foolhardiness, stubbornness, naivete, and integrity. The best Westerns recognize that the choices the genre sets up for its protagonists are loneliness at home vs. loneliness on the range, and then they grapple with that recognition.
Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance, published just a few years ago in 2017, is one of these best Westerns. The novel opens with the main character, an enormous, white-haired and bearded, naked “old, strong Christ,” climbing back out from a frigid arctic bath in a hatchet-hacked hole in the ice. This unsettling, stark image that begins the book also defines it. With only brief interruptions and diversions, the novel pursues the theme of something I can best sum up as mythic loneliness.
This phrase works both ways. Diaz explores the loneliness at the heart of the American settler myth, with the main character a Swedish immigrant named Håkan, who by the end of the novel has managed to traverse alone nearly every recognizable biome of the American West. At the same time, he uses this character, a nearly Bunyan-esque figure whose Swedish name by the end of the novel has been transliterated to Hawk, as a way to, in effect, mythologize loneliness.
So although this isn’t a feel-good novel for someone looking to escape from quarantine-induced loneliness, it is such an exquisitely drawn portrait of loneliness, and such a haunting, brooding, yet ultimately powerful one, that I would without hesitation recommend it as a “quarantine read.” At the least, it reminds me that the impulse to traverse the vast reaches of the American West in the attempt to outrun loneliness is an illusion, and not always a harmless one. Throughout the novel, and usually by necessity, Hawk, over and over, must do what springtime always makes me want to do, this wandering impulse that our current crisis seems to have intensified in me: “[h]e looked at his feet, then up again, and set off into the whiteness, toward the sinking sun.”
That’s the last sentence of the novel, and it doesn’t spoil anything for you. Perhaps that’s the point: life isn’t linear, and our stories are not neat things. We’re always making and remaking them, doubling back and circling around in order to tell and retell them in ways that serve to extend and create our own personal mythologies. Where we’re going, where we are, and where we’ve been are always in the distance, no matter if we’re moving or sitting still.
The extent of space lying between any two
objects; the space to be passed over before
reaching an object, an intervening space.
The remote part of the field of vision or
perception; the distant or far-off region; esp.
in the phrase in the distance.
Balint, Nadia. “As Apartments Are Shrinking, Seattle Tops New York with the Smallest Rentals in the U.S.” RentCafe Blog, November 30, 2018. https://www.rentcafe.com/blog/rental-market/real-estate-news/us-average-apartment-size-trends-downward/
Diaz, Hernan. In the Distance. Coffeehouse Press, 2017.
"Distance." Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford UP, 2020. Accessed 5 May 2020.
Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. Oxford UP, 1992
About Michael Prewitt
Michael Prewitt is a teacher, writer, and bluegrass musician living in East Grand Forks, Minnesota.