Common ground at the core
Vivian Gornick’s first memoir, Fierce Attachments (1987), was the story of the American author’s ‘‘intense and binding’’ connection with her crass, melodramatic and overbearing mother. The Odd Woman and the City is also a relational memoir but with a difference. Make that two differences: first, the other half in this book is not a person but a place: New York City. Second, Gornick celebrates this place precisely because it has offered her over 80 years, in imagination and reality, respite from suffocating dyads such as she once shared with her mother.
New York protects Gornick’s precious sense of her aloneness through cultivating occasional and accidental associations with multiple others: friends, neighbours, total strangers. There is, thankfully, no serenading of Manhattan landmarks or name-dropping of famous residents. Gornick’s stories reside in locations such as the 14th Street subway entrance, a downtown branch library, the bagel shop across the street from City Hall, the No 3 bus that runs along Fifth Avenue. Her characters are the city’s drivers, shopkeepers, seniors, beggars and crazies.
New York writers from the past are mentioned on occasion but they are not the most famous ones: poet Charles Reznikoff, journalist Seymour Krim, novelist Isabel Bolton, the ‘‘frayed and dingy and more than a little mad’’ writer Evelyn Scott. After Gornick has told you a little about them you can’t help but wonder why you haven’t heard more before.
In fact, the book as a whole can be understood as a kind of retrieval effort: it collects moments in life that we either take for granted, such as hanging out with an old friend (as Gornick does weekly for more than 20 years with the witty, aggrieved Leonard), or that occur by chance on the margins of the events we plan, such as helping an old man bridge a wooden plank suspended across two squares of newly poured pavement concrete.
These moments often are chosen for preservation because they embody some kind of human understanding or connection against the odds. Writes Gornick of her encounter with the old man on the wooden plank, ‘‘For thirty seconds we had stood together — he not pleading, I not patronising. In the midst of American dysfunction, global brutality, and personal defensiveness, we had, each of us, simply come into full view, one of the other.’’
Halfway through the book, the reason for Gornick’s celebration of such moments comes into focus in a vignette pulled from a trip on an uptown train. She finds herself seated opposite a man and his son. The boy, she tells us, ‘‘is the most grotesquely deformed child’’ she has seen, with the ‘‘face of a gargoyle — mouth twisted to the side, one eye higher than the other — inside a huge, misshapen head that reminds me of the Elephant Man’’. The pair is using sign language to communicate. Their conversation grows more and more animated. They are very soon laughing. Thinks Gornick, ‘‘These two are humanising each other at a very high level.’’ By the time she reaches her stop, the boy looks ‘‘beautiful’’ to her and the father ‘‘beatific’’.
Understanding and connection wouldn’t matter so much if distemper, incuriosity and misrecognition weren’t in such oversupply. Gornick is, as she tells us early in the book, a glass-half-empty kind of person. She is prone to registering ‘‘loss, failure, defeat’’ and has her fair share of what she calls ‘‘ who the f..k asked you’’ days. Leonard, on the checkout queue in a grocery store, explains why understanding and connection are so difficult: ‘‘In New York, to go out of your way to help someone is to interrupt conventional inconvenience; delay, deflect, detain; stop the action; pursue reflection. In short, risk assault.’’
The Odd Woman in the City is written in the form of discontinuous sections, which also might be said to interrupt, deflect and stop the action. Writers usually earn their keep by building up stories across paragraphs. We read on because we’ve invested in some character’s development or because we want to know what happens next. But Gornick’s fragments interrupt conventional narrative expectations. They relay stories that are usually over and done with after a page or two. Each new section starts all over again: it takes place in a different moment in time and space, it introduces us to somebody new. On first glance, it is hard to see what is holding them together.
A third of the way through Gornick recalls that as a girl she ‘‘was forever telling the children on the block’’ stories: ‘‘I’d give them the narration, then I’d sum up, giving them the sentence that delivered the meaning of the story.’’ But this meaning was seldom received: ‘‘Instead, eager looks evaporated, expressions turned puzzled or hostile, and, inevitably, someone said, ‘ Whaddaya mean by that?’ ’’ This is exactly the risk Gornick runs by using discontinuous fragments as her form here: that her readers might, likewise, wonder ‘‘Whaddaya mean by that?’’ Or even worse, “Why should I bother?”
This form requires a relationship of tremendous trust to be built between reader and writer. Gornick gains our confidence due to her skill in selecting stories that have an emotional resonance or impart some earned wisdom, and her ability to tell these stories in a language that is precise and elegant yet attuned to the streets. What she does in The Odd Woman in the City is, in essence, what she sees her friends and acquaintances — Eli, Gloria, Myra, Sylvia — doing when she accidentally bumps into them about the city, and that is shaking ‘‘the kaleidoscope of daily experience to arrive at a composition that will help mediate the pain of intimacy, the vibrancy of public space, and the exquisite intervention of strangers’’. is lecturer in English at Monash University and director of its Centre for the Book.
Vivian Gornick’s memoir reaches for the heart of New York City; above, Times Square