I have lived out my conflicts not my fantasies…

… and so has New York.

So goes a line in Vivian Gornick’s memoir, published last year, which I kept seeing on various “Best of” lists for 2015. From everything I’ve read, it was exactly the sort of book I like: witty and about being female and about being a female in a city, and about friendships and the 20th century.

Vivian Gornick - Odd Woman and the City

And it is all those things, and so I enjoyed reading it. I’ve always wanted to be an odd woman, and feared it, the way you do if you’re a girl from a mid-sized town/city in West Texas.

(I had a moment of panic in college, when I thought I might turn out to be “normal”, but then I realized that I had been trying my whole life to be normal, unsuccessfully, so it was unlikely that it would happen inadvertently. This is both prescient and likely to lure a person into a false sense of comfort, but that’s all something to discuss another time.)

I have read this book quickly, and I have also folded down a lot of pages. (I am a person who likes to write in the margins, but after opprobrium from other readers, I have started turning down the corners of pages where I liked the quotes, and then trying to find them later. It’s not the same. I need to start travelling with pencils, which is a better compromise.) All of that supports the idea that I enjoyed reading the book.

It is, for starters, a wonderful description of friendships:

“We are one,” I decided shortly after we met. … It took years for me to realize this sentiment was off the mark. 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.

Yes, a bit melancholy. But she asks great questions, and has similar insights throughout. I liked this one too:

In both friendship and love, the expectation that one’s expressive (if not best) self will flower in the presence of the beloved over is key. Upon that flowering all is posited. 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 assumptions 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?

She made me add a lot of things to my Goodreads list, which is not really a to-read list but is basically a list of all the books I might want to look at and peruse if I had infinite time: Seymour Krim, George Gissing (see below). I need to watch Gypsy, it turns out. This was a helpfully curated guide to somewhat obscure references to strange women and loneliness and urban life. I’m always grateful for a book that gives me more writers and books to read.

There were some things about it that were grating, though. She writes about New York in a kind of devoted way that seems to me to be almost redundant and exclusive, in a slightly annoying way. She mentions in a parenthetical at some point in a story about riding a bus at midnight, for example, that there is traffic at midnight because there is always traffic in New York. It seems like you’d know that about New York, or that you wouldn’t even be reading her book if you didn’t know that about New York. There are other examples.

On the other hand, what’s wrong with the personal and specific, and so what if you have to use frustrating parenthetical asides to widen your audience? When I was stewing over what to write here, I thought that maybe I would write that it wasn’t universal enough, but surely the particular can be universal as well?

And right when I was thinking all of that, and feeling a bit frustrated because it’s a very middle-class/white-lady book, full of righteous indignation and a certain slight lack of kindness, she calls herself out on it in the last dozen pages, and totally redeems herself. There is the explanation of “odd women”, from the novel by George Gissing, and this amazing line about what it is like to live in the gap between cold idealism of feminism of the 1970s and the human reality and need for love and community, and the repercussions of that schism:

Sometimes I think that for me the gap has become a deep divide at the bottom of which I wander, as though on a pilgrim’s progress, still hoping to climb its side to level ground before I die.

And there is the following passage:

When I think back on it, I realize that we, the feminists of the seventies and eighties, had become primitive anarchists. We didn’t want reform, we didn’t even want reparations; what we wanted was to bring down the system, destroy the social arrangement, no matter the consequence. …
Here we were, women of the law-abiding middle class sounding, at this crucial moment of unmediated revolt, like professional insurrectionists, when in reality we were just Rose [in Gypsy], demanding our turn. (160)

Then there is an amazing story about a famous actor who has had a stroke and gives a private reading of Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, alternating between his own struggle with his voice and an earlier tape of his 4-year-old self playing the same part in a perfect style. The scene here is vividly recorded, and I feel that I can touch the actor. There is so much dignity in that scene.

There is also a scene in a park, which lauds the changes in a park from a white, middle-class park to a mixed-race park with guitar players and junkies. And some lines about the spirit of New York (not about jobs but about lifestyles), comparing it to more “manageable” cities, which almost crosses the border of my tolerance for New York hagiography. And then, she brings it back, talking about the voices of New York that keep her here.

Sure, she’s writing about New York, but she is also writing about cities. Those of us who love cities understand what she means.


3 thoughts on “I have lived out my conflicts not my fantasies…

  1. When I was in high school, I had a history teacher start halfway through my sophomore year, who was female, pregnant, and wore mumus, (homemade mumus with seasonally appropriate prints like little Halloween pumpkins, jesus f-ing christ) and I was terrified that I was looking at my future. I couldn’t listen to Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” (wish is a song I love, btw), for YEARS, because I was afraid that would turn out to be me. I was forever annoyed by Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer because she occasionally wanted to be a normal teenager. I might have gone to law school because I thought that the weirder life wasn’t working out for me and that was all I knew. I have also spent a lot of my life both being weird and fearing it.

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