In Other Words Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Ma­jka; and Black Wings Has My An­gel by El­liott Chaze

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - by Sara Ma­jka,

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

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