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The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoirgornickoddwoman
By Vivian Gornick
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

In her 2001 book The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick offers a theory for how to interpret memoirs and personal essays:

Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.

A book’s “story” cannot be reduced to its subject — a coming-of-age tale, an account of a marriage, a story of abuse, whatever it might be. The “story” is something deeper, a feeling or idea that comes from the writer’s experience and that shapes every detail of the book, from the largest structural principles to the smallest choices of diction and syntax. The persona is what brings it all together; it is the being on the page – a version of the writer but not the writer herself – created specifically to tell a particular story. We read personal narratives to see the world as the persona sees it.

So what do we make of Gornick’s new book The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir? Her subjects include loneliness, love, friendship, feminism, crowds, walking, and life in the city. Her persona is disappointed and aggrieved, and also observant, sharp, and sardonically funny. She mixes anecdotes from her life, observations about contemporary culture, thoughts about cities in general and New York City in particular, and reflections on the world around her. That world is a place where anything can happen. She is a walker in the city, part of the flaneur tradition made up of (mostly male) writers who wandered, observed, and then recorded their insights. She stakes her claim among the “melancholy Brits” known for their attachment to the urban: Dickens, Gissing, Johnson, “the eternal groundlings who wander these mean and marvelous streets in search of a self reflected back in the eyes of the stranger.” The city becomes a place to ask and maybe find some answers to the questions about identity that have shaped her life.

She describes homeless people, shopkeepers, bus drivers, strangers in coffee shops. She records funny conversations she overhears and describes meeting strangers at parties. She finds the presence of all those strangers comforting: “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.” Those generic connections make up in part for her disappointing relationships with husbands, friends, and parents; they provide a sense of possibility to contrast with all her grievances.

Using Gornick’s own terms, the “story” of her book, the way her persona sees her subject, is in part what it means to be an “odd woman,” a woman who is not paired off in marriage. The title is an allusion to George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women, which she argues is the best among a series of novels about women written by men gissingoddwomenin the late nineteenth century. In Gissing’s character Rhoda, a feminist who challenges marriage and considers an unconventional relationship but then backs away from it, she recognizes herself:

It is in Rhoda that I see myself and others of my generation, plain…Imagine (as I can all too readily) the ignorance behind that cold passion with which she, having seen the feminist light, so proudly pronounces, No equality in love? I’ll do without! Children and motherhood? Unnecessary! Social castigation? Nonsense!

But ideals inevitably come into conflict with everyday life, for Rhoda, for Gornick, and for everyone:

As Rhoda moves inexorably toward the moment when she fails herself, she becomes a walking embodiment of the gap between theory and practice: the place in which so many of us have found ourselves, time and again.

Gornick grew up expecting she would meet and marry “Prince Passion.” She is of her generation in this respect; even though her childhood dreams had more to do with fomenting political revolution than with marriage and motherhood, she always assumed she would have a husband and children by her side. After two short-lived marriages, she came to see the truth that she would never live out that fantasy. She put her energy into her work instead, believing that if the reality of marriage did not live up to her expectations, she would live without it. Like Rhoda, she was ready to shape her life around a different set of standards. But the ideal of romantic love never left her. In fact, the absence of romantic love is what shaped her life. Comparing herself to George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke and Henry James’s Isabel Archer, she writes:

I was born to find the wrong man, as were Dorothea and Isabel. That’s what we were in business for. If this had not been the case, we’d all have found some useful work to do and long forgotten the whole question of the right man. But we did not forget it. We never forgot it. The elusive right man became a staple in our lives, his absence a defining experience.

middlemarchGornick’s persona is an “odd woman” not just because she failed to stay in a marriage but because in many other ways she is at odds with her generation and culture. At the heart of her book is rueful bemusement that she is a product of her times even while resisting them. Gornick explores this disjunction by way of her friendship with Leonard, with whom the book begins and ends. Leonard is a gay man who has become her best friend. They share “the politics of damage,” a sense that they both were born into a world that was not ready for them. The great subject of their conversations is their sense of leading an unlived life, that their identities were formed by the inequities of their time. They can see each other no more than once a week or their combined negativity towards the world will overwhelm them both. About their friendship she asks:

Would we have manufactured the inequity had one not been there, ready-made – he is gay, I am the Odd Woman – for our grievances to make use of? To this question our friendship is devoted. The question, in fact, defines the friendship – gives it its character and its idiom – and has shed more light on the mysterious nature of ordinary human relations than has any other intimacy I have known.

What this question amounts to is how much their dissatisfaction is the world’s fault and how much it is their own. Was she destined to be unhappy no matter what her circumstances were, or was she truly born at the wrong time? Perhaps Gornick’s story would have been different had she been born in a different generation – in 1965 or 1975, perhaps, instead of 1935 – but she will never know. Instead, she can only marvel at the arbitrariness of one thing happening instead of something else:

What is certain, however, is that inevitably one ends up deeply surprised – “This is not what I had in mind!” – at how it has all turned out; and just as inevitably, the surprise becomes one’s raw material.

Her use of “one” in this passage indicates movement away from personal experience. She wonders whether we all are, to some degree, born at the wrong time, whether we are all “odd” people. Life comes to seem more a matter of failing to fit in than it is finding one’s place. She says to Leonard, “I’m not the right person for this life.” He responds, “Who is?”

Her “story” is also about how her walks on the city streets lead her to question what it means to have a self that is shifting and fluid. She wonders whether there is any part of the self that is fixed and unchanging, and if not, what that would mean for everyday life. One possibility is that it would mean giving up the idea of permanent, stable intimacy. She asks,

But what if the restless, the fluid, the mercurial, within each of us is steadily undermining the very thing we think we most want? What, in fact, if the assumption of a self in need of expressiveness is an illusion? What if the urge toward stable intimacy is perpetually threatened by an equally great, if not greater, urge toward destabilization? What then?

Implicit in these questions is the idea that the ebb and flow of her relationships – both love affairs and friendships – instead of a conventional marriage and a set circle of friends is a more honest and perhaps more authentic way to live. Even her friendship with Leonard, her most reliable relationship, is more about being “solitary travelers slogging through the country of our lives, meeting up from time to time at the outer limit to give each other border reports.”

VivianGornickThe ever-changing city reflects her sense of the fluidity of identity. Every walk through the city is different, with new people to see and hear, new routes to take, new buildings to observe, and the destruction of old buildings to witness. As she walks, she watches the changes outside her while experiencing the changes within. She thrives on constant movement:

You’ve got to find the composition of the rhythm, lift the story from the motion, understand and not regret that the power of narrative drive is fragile, though infinite. Civilization is breaking up? The city is deranged? The century surreal? Move faster. Find the story line more quickly.

Her life is an attempt to find the story line but to remember, always, that the story line she finds is only one of an infinite number and is useful only until the time comes to find the next.

As Gornick suggests they should in The Situation and the Story, her underlying preoccupations appear in the sentences, tone, and structure of her memoir. Her story is told in short sections, the longest only a few pages, the shortest a few lines. She moves back and forth among observations of the city, stories from her life, and examples taken from literature and history of other “odd women,” never lingering too long on any one story and typically not drawing any conclusions for the reader. The writing is more suggestive than argumentative, more interested in documenting the way the world is than in producing theories about it. She works through juxtapositions, letting the reader make connections in much the same way as a walker through the city observes, notes, and moves on, building a picture of the neighborhood one piece at a time.

She shifts, for example, from abstract thoughts on the stream of people who are also walkers in the city, to a few lines on a book about cosmetic surgery published by a friend (“’She’s only forty-two,’ I say. ‘Why is she writing about cosmetic surgery?’ ‘Maybe she’s seventy,’ Leonard says. ‘What do you know?’”), to a story about her thesituationandthestoryfriendship with an elderly woman who has recently moved to an assisted living facility. These anecdotes capture a wide range of human interactions, all presented to the reader without transitions or commentary.

One response to feeling like an “odd woman” is her worldly-wise and self-aware tone. She is conscious that her natural voice may be sometimes hard to take, “forever edged in judgment,” a voice that “never stops registering the flaw, the absence, the incompleteness.” This is not the side of herself she wants to present to the reader, so the negativity gets modulated into wryness and a dark wit. She can be gently self-mocking, making fun of her illusions:

I daydreamed the future: the tomorrow in which I would write a book of enduring value, meet the companion of my life, become the woman of character I had yet to become. Ah, that tomorrow! How wonderfully its energetic projections got me through innumerable days of wasteful passivity.

In a similar vein, she tells an anecdote about a man on a bus who would not stop talking loudly into his phone; when she tells him to quiet down he responds with nasty insults and she has to cajole the bus driver into helping her. She gets him to call the police, but they only laugh at her. She writes the incident up for the Times and two days later, “my phone rings and a man from the paper says, ‘You want us to publish this?’” There the section ends, leaving us to draw our own conclusions about its meaning. Is she distressed at the incivility of the incident and the world’s scorn at her outrage, or is she mocking her own pretensions that getting yelled at on a bus is worthy of newspaper publication? Perhaps it’s both.

Another, different response to “oddness” is to look at the world with a sense of wonder and an eye for the absurd. This attitude lies behind her impulse to record the strange, funny people she sees on the streets and the unexpected connections she has with strangers. It also serves to balance the more judgmental moments and keep the book from becoming too dark. We find, for example, a charming scene where Gornick runs into a 90-year-old neighbor named Vera waiting in line at the pharmacy, and the two of them talk about sex with such frankness that they get the attention of the man waiting in line next to them. The three of them proceed to complain about the men they have met who were “lousy lovers”: “For a split second the three of us look at one another, and then, all at once, we begin to howl. When the howling stops, we are all beaming.” Or there is the scene where Gornick witnesses a distinguished, wealthy-looking couple under the awning of an expensive hotel, acting their sweetest, most endearing selves and celebrating a “wonderful afternoon.” She describes the incident to her socialist friend who “listens with her customary Marxist moroseness and says, ‘You think she knows from a wonderful afternoon?’” These and similar stories capture the joy Gornick feels at her freedom to roam the city. It is one of the consolations of being an “odd woman,” that there is nothing and no one to keep her from experiencing the city exactly as she wants to.

In a 2014 interview with the Paris Review, Gornick says that she and her friend Leonard “lived out our conflicts, not our fantasies.” It is from this juxtaposition that the persona in The Odd Woman and the City arises. It is a persona that is ever-aware of those unrealized fantasies but is working toward accepting disappointment and finding consolation where it is available. This book embodies living out conflict in its restlessness, its seeking, its constant movement. In the interview, she says that the real question of the book is “How did I become what I’ve become?” From a reader’s perspective, though, this is only part of the story. The book’s question is actually the larger one of how anybody becomes what they have become. Gornick answers the question for herself but at the same time gets at larger questions that any reader might want to ponder. Her persona is a bracing guide through some of the trickiest problems of taking stock of one’s place in the world.

Rebecca Hussey teaches English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut and blogs at Of Books and Bicycles.