Com­mon ground at the core

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Melinda Har­vey

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

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