In Other Words Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka; and Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze
Graywolf Press, 160 pages
“Why New Mexico?” asks a professor of one of his students as he gives her a lift to a waterfront bar in Portland, Maine, on the night she disappears. The answer is one of the brightest moments in Sara Majka’s otherwise gray and somber first collection of stories. The student explains that she left home at seventeen and made it to the Southwest. She took a room with back windows and no front windows, piled with boxes of things that didn’t belong to her. The walls were draped in sheets. Her roommate in the unnamed New Mexican town worked the snack bar at a bowling alley, and their life on the lanes (“I liked to bowl,” she tells her teacher), blessed with endless nachos smothered in dispenser cheese, seems golden.
The story of the girl’s disappearance, “White Heart Bar,” is more revealing about the characters surrounding the suspected abduction of the student than it is about the one-time bowler herself. Anne, the story’s narrator and wife of the professor who gives the missing girl the ride on the night she’s last seen, calls the student “the lost girl.” Another professor becomes involved when Anne sees in the local paper that he has been caught stealing maps from the school, and she remembers that he, too, had a relationship with the girl. At this point, readers may think they need their own map to find their way through the complicated landscape of the story. But it’s really rather easy. Follow the narrator and look for descriptions of those golden moments, like the ones in the bowling alley, that are simple, innocent, and benign. Isn’t that, in some form or another, what we’re all seeking?
Even when circumstances such as those in “White Heart Bar” suggest otherwise, the loneliness and the suspended animation of day-to-day life that Majka describes so vividly make you suspect that there’s biography behind her storytelling. Majka has an admitted attraction to autobiographical fiction. Writing in the online publication Catapult (about Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of the six-volume series My Struggle), she declared herself a fan of Amy Hempel, Tim O’Brien, and other neo-memoir novelists and story writers. “I would guess my attraction to those books has something to do with an alleviation of loneliness that comes from that proximity to a real person,” she writes. “It’s hard to say why this work means so much to me. You sense the cost of it. It is vulnerable.” The voice of Majka’s narrator through Cities I’ve Never Lived In, seemingly the same person, stays consistent as she visits her own life and relates other stories she’s been told. “I” is a woman who resembles Majka in age and experience. Like the heroine in the book’s title story, Majka once traveled to “small, interior cities” she’d previously never been to and worked in soup kitchens along the way, taking meals as she did. When a “she” does narrate a story, as one does in “Strangers,” you sense the first person of the other stories doing the telling. Sometimes she makes sure we know who is doing the telling. “There is one last story I’m trying to tell,” the last story begins. It takes us to Berlin and Poland, as well as Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Majka was once a fiction fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center. It’s told by a waitress. Majka herself was once a waitress. The story is, again, about a disappearance, and there’s still one more story that involves the disappearance of a child. Could so many people go missing from someone’s life?
The balance between biography and imagination doesn’t really affect to the wonder of these stories. The proximity we feel to Majka and her characters, as well as their vulnerability, comes from their anxiety and fear of detachment. “I was worried back then, not that something bad was about to happen, but that it already had only I hadn’t realized it yet,” explains the hyperconscious narrator of “The Museum Assistant.” How can you count on contentment, thinks the woman who finds solace in the soup kitchens, when you realize “you’re fine, but you’re worried it won’t last”? The autobiographical impulse to record things down to their barest emotion and find their significance pervades the writing. Relationships provide a context, and love, selfishly, is important because it’s “a transcript of living ... we all want, in some way, to be able to record our life, and for some reason lovers do that for each other.”
The most dreamlike of the stories, “St. Andrew’s Hotel,” seems far from Majka’s life but close to her worldview. An eleven-year-old boy is taken from his island home to the Maine state mental hospital after cutting his wrists with a coping saw. The boy disappears into the hospital and remains there for 10 years. His mother wants to visit, but the ferry that sails from the island can no longer find the mainland. When the boy is released at age twenty-one, he heads out, only to find that where the island should have been is now no more than “a sprinkle of land.” Majka doesn’t need to describe the emotions of separation and melancholy that the story imparts. The symbolism of islands, confinement, a mother who doesn’t know you, and ferries that seem to travel across time do it for her. — Bill Kohlhaase