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Review: ‘The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir” by Vivian Gornick


The Odd Woman And The City: A Memoir

By Vivian Gornick

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

175 pages, $22

By Karen Brady

Vivian Gornick – the frank and feisty critic who brought us 1987’s unforgettable “Fierce Attachments” – is at it again with her marvelous new memoir, “The Odd Woman and the City.”

As before, it is New York City that thrills, chills and sustains Gornick – but, instead of her late mother (the raison d’etre for “Fierce Attachments”), she also focuses on friendship in its numerous permutations, the most enduring that of friend and alter ego, Leonard.

“We share the politics of damage, Leonard and I,” she writes. “Whatever the circumstance, for each of us the glass is perpetually half-empty. Either he is registering loss, failure, defeat – or I am. We cannot help ourselves. We would like it to be otherwise, but it is the way life feels to each of us: And the way life feels is inevitably the way life is lived.”

Gornick is 80 now and, never one to mince words, is clearly at odds with herself: “No one is more surprised than me that I turned out to be who I am,” she writes.

It is a pattern that set in early:

I grew up and moved downtown, but sure enough, nothing turned out as expected. I went to school, but the degree did not get me an office in midtown. I married an artist, but we lived on the Lower East Side. I began to write, but nobody read me above Fourteenth Street. For me, the doors to the golden company did not open. The glittering enterprise remained at a distance.

Gornick married twice, each time for two and a half years, but found herself alone, even in marriage. Only on the streets of the Big Apple did she discover that - in the words of Samuel Johnson (on London) – “the meaning of the city was that it made the loneliness bearable.”

This is an enriching book especially for those of us who know what it is to live on one’s own in New York City – captivating, alive day or night, an existence in itself that is in all ways enough if not more than enough. Except when it isn’t.

Gornick, who calls herself “a writer of first-person nonfiction,” is a master at expressing that particular “isn’t” – one that, in her case, is cured only by still more of her teeming Manhattan.

“As I saw myself moving ever further toward the social margin, nothing healed me of a sore and angry heart like a walk through the city,” she writes. “To see in the street the fifty different ways people struggle to remain human – the variety and inventiveness of survival technique – was to feel the pressure relieved, the overflow draining off. I felt in my nerve endings the common refusal to go under. That refusal became company …”

Gornick calls this way of life “buying time” – a concept that, she says, her friend Leonard seconds, he a gay man she has known for countless years and with whom she shares dinners and walks and phone talks without the fear of further involvement. (Leonard, too, she tells us “needs to feel concrete beneath his feet.”)

There is much to be considered in “The Odd Woman and the City,” not the least of which is the fact that Gornick, a reporter for the Village Voice during the feminist movement of the late 1960s through most of the 1970s, has long been a woman to reckon with. She has championed feminist causes in essays, articles and in historic nonfiction, and, although no longer the rampant feminist she once was, she has never lowered her voice on behalf of women’s rights.

She is also a long-admired critic and teacher who, since the publication of “Fierce Attachments” – and “Approaching Eye Level,” nine years later – has been considered a founder of the now-vast memoir-writing movement. Loneliness, her forte almost from the start, as well as the vagaries of love and friendship and the need to keep-on-keeping-on anchor her personal works, “The Odd Woman and the City” being no exception.

That she speaks now (with the interior thoughts of an elder stateswoman) only underscores her earlier perception that much in life is not what it seems. Here she goes deep, particularly regarding the sexes – neither of which she deems “real” to the other, a conviction that casts her in the role of the Odd Woman.

The term (from George Gissing’s 1893 novel – “The Odd Women” plural) is one she described in a 2014 essay, “The Art of the Memoir No. 2,” as “the woman who just can’t make her peace with being in the world as the world is – which, essentially, comes down to living in a world in which people are not any more real to you than you are to them …”

By extension, she tells us, in her new memoir, “There are two categories of friendship: those in which people enliven one another and those in which people must be enlivened to be with another. In the first category one clears the decks to be together; in the second one looks for an empty space in the schedule.”

Later, Gornick attends a chi-chi dinner party, finding that, “as the tone, syntax, and vocabulary of this group were foreign to me, I did not at first grasp the banality of the conversation. People introduced subjects in order to allude, not to discuss …”

Witty, learned – and never shy – she also describes trysts with lovers for what they are, calling one (with a friend from childhood) that phrase she now marks her days with, “buying time.”

That time is not linear here. Some of these present-seeming instances clearly took place in Gornick’s past. But there is consistency in her frankness, and we find firm ground for her particular melancholia: Even in the arranged company of others one is (or can often be) lonely. Gornick best describes this when visiting a friend in a nursing home where the friend seems to be the only deep-thinking resident:

“Is there no one here with whom you can have a conversation?” she asks her friend. “No, dear,” the friend replies. “Chatter, yes. I get plenty of that. But conversation? No …”

One of the charms of this memoir is the string of stories that accompany Gornick’s musings – each a vignette of her beloved New York, an exchange overheard, a small scene witnessed, a conversation had with a stranger.

We feel her “sense of marginality” with her – as well as her inability “to engage heedlessly with life – love it more than I loved my fears,” instead finding herself in that “gap between theory and practice: the place in which so many of us have found ourselves, time and again.”

Yes, we fall in love with Vivian Gornick – her chutzpah and fine mind, her wit, perseverance and resolve, but, perhaps most of all, her solution to all of life’s woes:

“If life begins to feel like the sum of its disabilities,” she writes, “I take a walk up to Times Square – home to the savviest underclass in the world – where I quickly gain perspective.”

Karen Brady is a former News columnist.