Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
The Odd Woman and the City
By Vivian Gornick
March 2016, RRP: $22.99, ISBN: 9781863958141, Paperback
Vivian Gornick is a master at blurring the boundaries between time and space, literature and life, and narrator and reader. It might just be me, since I recognise so much of my own family’s history in her work, but I immediately felt a closeness to her; as if she were my own mother having a heart-to-heart about her life, and in doing so, revealing to me my own life, and by implication, the nature of humanity. In her latest book, The Odd Woman and the City, Gornick tackles the subjects of friendship and solitude, using her “continuous I” style that encompasses a wide range of genres in a way that calls to mind her existing body of work while extending the narrative into its new thesis. The “odd” in the title, a nod to Gissing’s The Odd Woman, is partly synonymous with being childless and unmarried (the odd one out), and it’s partly a badge of honour and a gift of freedom that has been earned.
The story begins with Gornick and her longtime friend Leonard in conversation about the nature of aging and life. It’s one of many conversations with Leonard that takes place through the book. Leonard is chronically miserable, but his intelligence and sophistication are, as Gornick puts it, energising. We come to love him, as we love Gornick, not in spite of his flaws, but because of them. New York City has a similar role in the book: it’s energising in its collective misery, its honesty, its beauty. It provides Gornick with sustenance. In one of many literary digressions, Gornick speaks of Samuel Johnson’s relationship with London:
…the city was always the means of coming up from down under, the place that received his profound discomfort, his monumental unease. The street pulled him out of morose isolation, reunited him with humanity, revived in him his native generosity, gave him back the warmth of his own intellect. (10)
The reader is well aware that Gornick is also speaking of her own relationship with New York City. Cities like New York or London do that: they become part of who we are, getting under the skin and nourishing us, even, as in my case, when we don’t live in them. It’s possible to read The Odd Woman and the City as a kind of love letter to New York and the life it has given Gornick. In her work, the city becomes a buzzing composite, mirroring the buzzing composite of Gornick’s work that leads towards one thing – connectedness:
Every night when I turn the lights out in my sixteenth-floor living room before I go to bed, I experience a shock of pleasure as I see the banks of lighted windows rising to the sky, crowding round me, and feel myself embraced by the anonymous ingathering of city dwellers. This swarm of human hives, also hanging anchored in space, is the New York design offering generic connection. The pleasure it gives soothes beyond all explanation. (21)
The book is a collage of memories, including walks with Gornick’s mother, the subject of Fierce Attachments, memories of her childhood in the Bronx, marriages and relationships, as well as literary criticism, snippets of overheard conversation, anecdotes, reflection, and psychology. In one vignette Gornick and Leonard are talking in a café and suddenly we’re back in time to Gornick’s childhood. The scene will often switch from present day to a remembered love affair, and just as quickly switch back to a modern observation – say a man on a soapbox taking about sunscreen and the inadequacies of caucasians. Though it may sound disconnected, the book works perfectly as a coherent whole and the story that comes out of the collage is engrossing. The literary references always support and illuminate the personal experience and vice-versa.
The writing itelf is beautiful too – succinct, with sharp and original insight. For example, in looking at the work of Isabel Bolten, Gornick says “What is certain, however, is that inevitably one ends up deeply surprised—‘This is not what I had in mind!’ (78) at how it has all turned out; and just as inevitably, the surprise becomes ones raw material.” These hard-won insights run throughout the book, always moving seamlessly between observation (of self, of situation, of literary work), and experience. There’s a poetic expansiveness or opening out that happens repeatedly.
The book is also rich with characterisation. With a few words, Gornick illuminates her characters, finding something in them that’s universal. The perceptions are often about something that appears to be negative, but it comes through with such a compassion that failure becomes a kind of success in individuation. One example of a literary character is Gornick’s portrait of Seymour Krim: “…consolidation of thought and action remained beyond Krim’s grasp. All he could do was document the disability that tore him up every day that he awakened in the cold-water flat on the Lower East Side that he lived in until he died. At the height of his powers, Krim’s gift was to speak for all those like him who were also unable to convert fantasy into reality.” (111). Similarly sharp characterisation occurs with the experiential, as with Gornick’s summing up of Manny Rader, her one time fellow Bronxian and temporary lover: “Manny had survived his long, puzzling melancholy by imagining himself perpetually poised for a future that had thus far eluded him. This meant making just enough money to survive and remaining marginal in all his habits.” (97)
Though a shared sense of what Gornick calls “mutual disability” binds and ultimately unbinds the characters (including Vivian to her mother: “She was the negative and I was the print”), Gornick to Leonard, and even the reader to Gornick, the book is hopeful, affirmative, and above-all rich with a deep sense of humanism. What we’re celebrating most of all in The Odd Woman and the City, is our mutual humanity: all those wonderful discordant notes, all of the flaws, and all of our failures. We love, we lose, and in these gaps, in these surprises, we make our art, our lives, our meaning. In celebrating the “50 different ways people struggle to remain human”, Gornick is celebrating us all, and forging connections that, in spite of the dissolution as we drift away from one another, remain permanent.