JUNE 2, 2015
CONSIDER THE SERIAL MEMOIRIST. There are many — Maya Angelou, Diana Athill, Maxine Hong Kingston, Frank McCourt, Jamaica Kincaid — who have extended life stories over multiple memoirs. Each has managed to retain serial readers, who eagerly await the author’s latest work, and attract new readers, who buy the author’s new memoir without reading the previous ones. The serial reader wants a blend of familiarity and novelty, a different lens for viewing the same old life — the author’s, and her own. The new reader might enjoy the assurance of a rich backlist, but she likely looks for relevance: a topical subject or a reflection of life lived today.
The serial memoirist Vivian Gornick is a critic and teacher, and, as a lifelong New Yorker, a better ambassador for the city than Taylor Swift. Gornick’s new memoir, The Odd Woman and the City, serves as a companion to her best-known book, a 1987 memoir about her relationship with her mother called Fierce Attachments. The eight volumes between, which range from essay collections to literary biographies, have many traits in common: they blend the personal and the political, and the creative and the critical, in an ongoing conversation that Gornick conducts with relatives and friends, with strangers on the street, with historical and literary characters.
For the serial reader, The Odd Woman and the City provides more Gornick, but not enough new Gornick. There are two things about the book that might disappoint the devoted Gornick reader like me. First, there is a fair amount of repeated material. A few passages derive directly from Gornick’s 1996 essay collection Approaching Eye Level, including a long section lifted from “On the Street,” Gornick’s vibrant New Yorker essay on the texture of public life in the city. It’s not that the passage from “On the Street” doesn’t fit perfectly into the new book. But if this seamlessness between old and new work suggests that Gornick’s writing is classic, it also dates her, perhaps. Of course, not every serial reader will notice the repetition; I noticed because I reread several of Gornick’s books for this review. But at stake in this recycling of material is the author’s contract with the serial reader: if not to offer new stories, then to provide new perspective. Notably, the structure of The Odd Woman and the City doesn’t require Gornick to repurpose these repeated sections. The book switches easily among three topics — the street, friendship, and literary portrayals of both — with section breaks alone to signal changes in subject. Gornick doesn’t shift the lens of analysis in The Odd Woman and the City; although she is the best observer of these three subjects in contemporary writing, none of them breaks new ground in her work. Serial readers will have to decide if they are content with more rather than new.
Second, for the serial reader, the lack of new perspective comes from a book that doesn’t bring much “news.” We don’t learn much about what’s happened in Gornick’s life, really, since the previous books. The Odd Woman and the City is another installment of the author’s life philosophy in three dimensions, but not with the fourth — time. As the critic Leigh Gilmore argues, “a serial autobiographer returns to the scene because she has left a body there which requires further attention.” Gornick doesn’t write whodunit mysteries or addictive podcasts (better-selling iterations of the “serial”). Rather, her work amounts to a serial primer for the artistic, solitary, urban life.
And yet. If the thrust of The Odd Woman and the City is familiar, it’s still electrifying: everyday performance requires response. Gornick’s doorman makes the point in a story about feeding a homeless man: “If you’re gonna do a thing … do it right. You don’t buy someone a hot dog without you also buying him a soda!” Without that soda, there is no exchange, no story, no fizz. The reading process becomes transactional; we, Gornick’s community of intimate strangers, want to respond.
Offering that response — and standing in for the reader — is Gornick’s friend Leonard. Leonard, who also provided punch lines in Approaching Eye Level, is Gornick’s wisecracking interlocutor, and the reader gets access to Gornick’s stories and thoughts as she confides them to him. For example, Gornick transcribes, in her snappy present-tense voice, an exchange with Leonard about her mother:
“Imagine,” I say to Leonard. “She’s so old and she can still do this to me.”
“It’s not how old she is that’s remarkable,” he says. “It’s how old you are.”
Leonard’s friendship carbonates Gornick’s story of herself. Gornick writes, “What we are, in fact, is a pair of 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.” Gornick’s 30-year-plus conversation with Leonard has helped her define the essence of friendship: “that one’s friend is a virtuous being who speaks to the virtue in oneself. How foreign is such a concept to the children of the therapeutic culture!”
Friendship, in the age of the Odd Woman, is a hallmark of autonomy and volition. But involuntary relations — family, strangers — also get pride of place in Gornick’s work. The serial reader, in fact, will be delighted by the return of Gornick’s mother, the star of Fierce Attachments, who, in The Odd Woman and the City, snorts derisively at a New York Philharmonic fundraiser and argues with acquaintances on the street. “I became my mother’s daughter,” Gornick writes, with all the ambivalence of the adult child. “Very young, I was not able to find myself interesting without intelligent response.”
This is the best reason to read and reread Gornick: to witness the responsiveness of the city, the brisk flow of blocks when all the walk signs align in your favor. Gornick has a gift for defining the curious blend of private and public in the urban multitude. She imagines half of New Yorkers becoming versions of her: “a walker in the city; here to feed the never-ending stream of the never-ending crowd that is certainly imprinting on someone’s creativity.” That creativity yields moments of clarity, which Gornick values most of all. She measures clarity in rectangles: city blocks, apartment foyers, and airy spaces of internal peace when the mind calls a truce in its ongoing battle with itself. When clarity strikes, it’s time to call Leonard, as Gornick does at the end of The Odd Woman and the City. And it’s time for the reader to listen in.
Serial readers (as with their favorite writers) change over time; they revisit beloved authors with altered life paths, shifted political views, and stronger lenses in their reading glasses. Therefore The Odd Woman and the City is timely, despite the datedness of its coffee counters, answering machines, and $1.50 bus fares. Writers, artists, and politicians are, once again, debating different configurations of attachment, from partnership to parenthood. The title of Gornick’s memoir derives from George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women, about a group of unmarried women in London. Gornick adopts the phrase to include contemporary women like herself: feminist, independent, and critical of their roles in a gendered society.
Gornick has a great deal to contribute to the current conversation around gender, creativity, and work. In a recent Bookforum review, she seeks inheritors of “the promise of becoming that second-wave feminism brought into existence.” Of the two books she reviews, Gornick prefers the essay collection Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, edited by Meghan Daum, which presents myriad perspectives, male and female, on the decision to forgo parenthood. Although it reaches further back into feminist history than the second wave (confounding Gornick), Kate Bolick’s Spinster offers a more holistic conversation with her forerunners than The Odd Woman and the City. Part of Gornick’s mission as an Odd Woman is to mine literary and historical material for contemporary resonance. This teaching version of Gornick is wise, but the memoir’s long sections of literary analysis lack her signature strength: the pop of present-tense dialogue.
In contrast to Daum’s argument-driven book and in unexpected sympathy with Bolick’s personal project, Gornick sets out to map the terrain of what she calls “useful solitude.” Her key cartographical tool is her pen, and she takes invaluable notes on how men and women talk — and don’t talk — to each other. In The Odd Woman and the City, she recounts running into a former lover:
I felt my eyes turning inward, toward that thick white opacity that surrounds my heart when it comes to erotic love.
“I can’t do men,” I said.
“What the hell does that mean,” he said.
“I’m not sure.”
“When will you be sure?”
“I don’t know.”
“So what do you do in the meantime?”