It used to be that we offered one another the best versions of ourselves. Now we do our best to give the worst. I’m supremely flawed, we all recite in unison, and let me count the ways. Such is the curse of our therapeutic culture, which dangles the promise of cathartic release in our faces while goading us to flash our warts, proclaim our weaknesses, and yammer on about the sacrosanct importance of our essential selves.
Or so goes the wisdom of Vivian Gornick, whose new memoir, The Odd Woman and the City, takes a dim view of the kind of confessional logorrhea that has come to dominate our coffee dates and deepest intimacies. “It is the great illusion of our culture that what we confess to is who we are,” writes Gornick—which is a relief, since a memoir that begins this way is unlikely to gratify itself by wallowing around in accounts of the author’s most shameful exploits while slyly beckoning the reader to join.
Gornick’s writing may belong to the literature of “I”—The Odd Woman and the City is her second memoir, after 1987’s Fierce Attachments—but it is not confession that occupies her attention, but rather the failure of it.
If St. Augustine had his stolen pears to rue, Gornick has a seemingly endless supply of little city vignettes, some of them gossipy nuggets from New York’s literary scene, but most of them concerning faint acquaintances or random people met on the street. In one of these, Gornick describes attending a brunch—a real stinker of a gathering, packed with artist-pretenders—and looking on as the diners merrily flagellate themselves with tales of their artistic failings. But one woman pipes up with a different kind of story. Some time ago, she stole a porcelain vase from the home of a collector of Chinese artifacts. Years passed, and guilt consumed her, so she wrapped up the vase and sent it back to its owner, along with note confessing she had wrongly taken something valuable that wasn’t hers. A few days later, the collector called her up, puzzled; a box had arrived in the mail, but nothing was in it—just a heap of unidentifiable shards.
It is this kind of problem—the problem of the shards—that interests Gornick. When it comes to forging meaningful human connections, spilling the beans is no more effective than putting on a brave, good face, and instead of four ways to love, like the Greeks had, contemporary American city-dwellers have a million ways that boil down to one: ill-fated. Our failures accrue into a heap, to be turned in our kaleidoscopes until a pattern emerges that can “mediate,” if only provisionally, “the pain of intimacy, the vibrancy of public space, and the exquisite intervention of strangers.”
Partial or thwarted or disingenuous: so must our confessions be, according to The Odd Woman and the City, and our relationships more generally too. “Every man alone is sincere,” Gornick reminds us, quoting from Emerson’s Self-Reliance. “At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins … A friend, therefore, is a sort of paradox in nature.”
When Gornick isn’t skewering West Side artist-pretenders, she is building out a theory of friendship that is at once richer than Emerson’s and more unsparing. In the opening pages of the book, we’re led to believe that its linchpin will be the memoirist’s relationship with Leonard, her longtime friend and kindred spirit in the art of being “perpetually aggrieved.” Both live alone. Both are well versed in the “politics of damage”; he grew up gay before Stonewall, and she is the Odd Woman, a veteran of radical feminism facing down the vague embarrassment of being old enough to understand what compromises are but unchanged enough to find them continually not to her taste. The tale of Vivian and Leonard will be a heart-warming one, we expect, a parable of solidarity in difference wrapped up in yet another loving ode to the city of New York, that meeting ground for oddballs, artists, and dissidents.
In the end, though, that’s not the tale we’re told. Leonard is the narrator’s cherished friend, to be sure, but his is not the presence that anchors the book or that serves to organize its mishmash of streetscapes, anecdotes, bon mots, and small acts of literary criticism. No, that honor goes to an archetype, not a character—the figure of the “solitary,” transmuted from adjective into noun.
Samuel Johnson was a solitary, and so were Isabel Bolton, Evelyn Scott, and the soliloquists of Samuel Beckett’s short fiction. Gornick sees herself as a solitary too, and in between tributes to remarkable literary loners, her memoir argues for her own place in their ranks. Hers is the inheritance of the late eighteenth-century British novels that she likes best: George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, and, above all, George Gissing’s The Odd Woman.
Uncompromising and impassioned, the heroines of these novels—the Odd Women—are “walking embodiment[s] of the gap between theory and practice,” and Gornick has visited them before, most notably in the essays of her 1997 collection The End of the Novel of Love. There, Gornick was a literary critic taking the novels through their paces and marking out a genre defined by a certain kind of woman protagonist: one who knows that she is awkwardly suited to her time. Here, Gornick is herself that woman, and still a critic too. The main action of The Odd Woman and the City belongs not to Vivian and Leonard, but to Vivian alone, reading her way out of the novels she entered into when she was younger.
That’s not to say that Gornick doesn’t mingle with the people of the twenty-first century. She does, and with relish. She rubs elbows, brushes sleeves, and swaps spit. But while Gornick’s New York may be a place of serendipitous meetings, it is by no means the happy crucible of artistic collaboration and fine fellow feeling that we find in so many other paeans to the city. Instead, this is New York as seen through the eyes of a female flâneur, whose gaze is unexpected but no less inclined toward exploitation than that of Baudelaire. For the flâneur, every scene is a spectacle. Beggars “whine” (as a “child of the Left,” Gornick is “categorically opposed” to begging, she says), and couples bicker. Faces crumble, mouths gape, and someone lies down in the middle of the street for no reason. Neighborhoods live up to their reputations, or don’t, and on the flâneur walks, headed for Hell’s Kitchen.
Occasionally, to complicate matters, strangers emerge from the crowd to demand interaction in excess of attention. Gornick helps a wobbly man cross an icy patch of sidewalk and earns a commensurate “Thank you”; a pudgy stranger snatches Gornick out of oncoming traffic, possibly saving her life.
In The Odd Woman and the City, these fleeting, magnified encounters have more to do with intimacy than do gab fests, secret telling, long years of friendship, cuddling, and hot sex combined. They are more genuine because less taxing. They leave room for revelation because they needn’t be sustained. More important, they nudge us away from the illusory dream of melt-into-me union that continues to flay our love-sick, soul-baring era.
“In both friendship and love,” writes Gornick, “the expectation that one’s expressive self will flower in the presence of the beloved other is key”—but meanwhile, an “urge toward destabilization” nips the bud and sends intimacy skedaddling. To recognize this cycle is to break it, or at least to make a start. Gornick, for her part, is already on the outside, swapping war stories with Sue Bridehead and Rhoda Nunn, and so must make her peace, if any, by choosing “useful solitude”—which is still, it turns out, the Odd Woman’s best and most exhilarating bet.
Lindsey Gilbert is a writer and editor in Boston.