The Odd Woman and the City
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)
Vivian Gornick’s new memoir, The Odd Woman and The City, explores friendship and ageing, love and sex, aloneness and loneliness—how she became herself. This journalist, critic and writer steals from some of her own past writings, and these nonlinear marginalities become an ode to New York. It is her loosest and sexiest work to date.
Her classic memoir, Fierce Attachments, explored her relationship with her mother; her The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton exploresher relationship to the origins of feminism; and her The Men in My Life explores her relationship to the male writers who influenced her work. In each of these works she is a different writer: a daughter, a feminist, a reader. In The Odd Woman and The City she is all of these at once and more: a sensualist, a fighter, an intellectual, and she reveals herself to be at once stronger and more vulnerable for it. (Full disclosure: I was a student of hers in The New School MFA nonfiction program.)
She takes her title from George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women, but I prefer to think that she’s engaging Hemingway—a female flâneur proving that the introspection and pugilism of a woman’s interior life are just as valid as those of men and their fish.
Gornick begins and ends The Odd Woman and The City with descriptions of her long friendship with a man she calls Leonard, a companion on long walks and a pessimist with whom she shares a dour outlook: “for each of us the glass is perpetually half empty.”
Urban friendship is a funny thing, as dependent on neighborhood, work, commute, or borough as on any shared sensibility or affection. Gornick shows us how time and the small wounds of friendship (“Nothing serious, just surface damage—a thousand pinpricks dotting arms, neck, chest”) decide how often we need to see the people in our lives. “Leonard and I consider ourselves intimates because our cycle takes only a week to complete.”
In New York, we all have friends we don’t see anymore because they got famous or had a baby or moved to a different borough or found a disagreeable romantic interest. She observes, with humor and a sharpness that soothes as it bites, “Like pieces in a kaleidoscope that’s been shaken, we’ve all simply shifted position in the pattern of intimate exchange […] Ah, but here’s someone I haven’t seen in years. Suddenly, a flare of intensity and we are meeting once a week for the next six months.”
Gornick explores what we want from our friendships through the lens of Coleridge and Wordsworth—for two years they felt they were their best selves in each other’s presence. She argues that we don’t reflect back a best self anymore; now we admit our deepest secrets to anyone in order to create an instant intimacy. Gornick writes: “Nothing draws us closer to one another than the degree to which we face our deepest shame openly in one another’s company […] It is the great illusion of our culture that what we confess to is who we are.”
This helps explain my own “mommy friends.” I met my “Mommy Cult” when my now twelve-year-old son was born—we were all thrown together in that old war against existential terror, identities shifting as we renegotiated our selves and relationships with our partners, and kept infants alive. Today, the kids are older; we no longer have that endless-seeming time on our hands spent mothering; we are back to our old selves, or the new selves we want to be. Gornick speaks to this: “These attachments, as Sartre might have put it, were contingent rather than essential.” She quotes Keats, “Any set of people is as good as any other.”
She writes of the city as an intimate: where you laugh about bad sex while waiting in line at the pharmacy, see beauty in an exchange on the subway, get mad at a woman who lives three blocks from you because she acts as if terrible circumstances have drawn you too far apart.
She takes Walter Benjamin and Baudelaire one better as the flâneuse. “The streets became one long ribbon of open road stretched out before us, with nothing to impede our progress.” I can’t read Gornick without reading her as a feminist, remembering that feminist gains are fragile, that women’s bodies have been so controlled by men that women weren’t allowed to walk outside, or alone. She revels in being no one’s property, living a life of the mind.
Is it odd that as a partnered mother of two, still I identify with Gornick as an Odd Woman? Her aloneness is a choice, and it seems that most of the time she is not lonely; the city is her companion. She excels at the unpartnered life, even as she is disappointed by it. When she is lonely, it guts her. As it does all of us. She has written here a book for those of us who need a new narrative, refracting and reflecting the urban landscape. Her voice is ambivalent, searching, always thinking on the page: what were those struggles for? What compromise led to which sorrow?
Her ruminations on aloneness and human connection stay with me, wondering how we are alone together, why our attractions often repel. “Release from the wounds of childhood is a task never completed, not even on the point of death.” I would argue that no other contemporary writer writes so beautifully on solitude, “One is lonely for the absent idealized other, but in useful solitude I am there, keeping myself imaginative company, breathing life into the silence, filling the room with proof of my own sentient being.”
And one day she realizes that, while walking, she was dreaming of the future, a fantasy future filled with literary awards and a perfect man. She realizes, as well, that she didn’t understand how she had gotten to be this way. Isn’t this all of us? The proverbial grass is always greener, someday my ship will come in, we none of us want the life we have, just the life that our fingers can claw towards.
She describes not wanting to wish her life away, “Turning sixty was like being told I had six months to live.”
Eroticism and partnership and children and friends don’t always make us less lonely, just less alone. Gornick writes about sex and class with an inimitable frankness, the style of a girl who grew up working class in the Bronx and never forgot it. “Sometimes I’d feel puzzled about how I would manage life both as an agent of revolution and as a devotee of love.”
The loss of love for that girl from the Bronx who didn’t know whether she would be married to an artist or be an artist herself is still fresh. She writes that after she ended her marriages she “became conscious of (her)self as a person preoccupied with desiring rather than being desired.” A classic feminist trope. How difficult, though, to find a partner with whom she could truly be on equal footing. She had an affair with a man with whom she felt well matched, except that his primary relationship to her was always sexual and patronizing: “A man was pressing me to do something I did not want to do, and pressing me in a manner he would never have applied to another man: by telling me I didn’t know what I wanted. I felt my eyes narrowing and my heart going cold.” Later, she says: “I prize my hardened heart—I have prized it all these years—but the loss of romantic love can still tear at it.”
Shocking to read that this independent woman whom I have admired for years still fell into this way of thinking, a way of thinking that I see as feminine—as less than, in the way that our society judges all things feminine as less than. I fear that the longing for love and romance, as Colette feared, is not worthy, and scares me, that I’ll be the same as Gornick, an Odd Woman, proud of it, but still wishing, hoping, for romance to make me complete. It’s the same shock that I feel when every woman in my feminist book group—strong, independent, queer, straight, poly-, intelligent, childfree, gorgeous women, rebels all—admit that they all feel ugly and restrained by ideal standards of beauty, even as we feel we should know better, we should be beyond those modes of thinking. We aren’t. But Gornick shows us a new mode of living, one that more and more humans are choosing.
Reading Vivian Gornick is like having lunch with favorite aunt: occasionally she says something racist (“Once the dominating color of this crowd was white, now it is black and brown…. Once it was law abiding, now it is not.”), but mostly she teaches and shares from her place in the world, a place to learn from. Gornick writes lovingly and excitingly: scenes from a New York dinner party, scenes of a formerly glamorous writer now elderly and infirm, finishing her days in an assisted-living facility, without strong intellectual conversation: “It was as though Alice were being found guilty of having stayed alive too long. How strongly I felt the punishment in excess of the crime!”
Then, The Odd Woman and the City becomes an unlikely rallying call: against ageism, against patriarchy, against our capitalisms. For women in all our shape-shifting forms—witches, comrades, writers—Gornick lays herself bare for our pleasure and gives us strength to continue being the Odd Women that we are.