‘Strength of Character: a review of Sara Majka’s “Cities I’ve Never Lived In”’, by Madelaine Lucas


When I moved to New York from Australia last August, plenty of people told me how bad the winter can get—that my hair would freeze if I went out with it wet, that if I wore the wrong boots I’d slip on black ice—but nobody warned me about how long it can last. I read the stories in Sara Majka’s debut collection, Cities I’ve Never Lived In, over one rainy weekend in May after I finished my first year of graduate school. It was supposed to be spring, but winter was still holding on and the rain outside was making me homesick for the storms I grew up with in Sydney. Holed up in my apartment, reading and listening to the rain, I could withdraw from the city. These stories lent me two things that are almost impossible to find in New York: space and solitude. Carrying the book in my bag when I ventured out again a few days later, reading it on the subway, felt like a way to retreat from the exterior noise of the city and access that quiet place – one that felt private and sheltered.

In her semi-autobiographical work Sleepless Nights, Elizabeth Hardwick writes: “Store clerks and waitresses are the heroines of my memories, those ladies cast off with children to raise; they keep things open, light up the night.” I thought of this while reading Cities I’ve Never Lived In, the second book to be published by Graywolf Press in collaboration with the American literary journal A Public Space. I think what reminded me of Hardwick was the value Majka gives to characters on the social periphery: waitresses, drifters, poor artists, single parents, the homeless. The kinds of people who drift through our cities like ghosts, often unnoticed except by other haunted, lonely people.

Anne, the recurring narrator who ties this collection together, is one of those people. Reeling after a divorce from a man she still loves and struggling to earn a living from writing and teaching, Anne leads a life of transience and solitude. “I was full of the feeling of being nowhere, or in someone else’s life, or between lives,” she tells us in the opening story, “Reverón’s Dolls”. We follow Anne through several linked stories as she seeks shelter in various cities and recounts her experiences there, as well as episodes from her marriage and memories from her unsettled childhood. At the heart of this collection is a question of belonging. If life is turbulent and relationships are temporary—if we’re all just passing through—can we ever really belong somewhere, or to someone?

These are stories that dwell in liminal space and unfold in places of in-between: off-season beach houses, soup kitchens, deserted towns, and borrowed rooms. Places nobody would call home. Majka draws us through a series of landscapes that reflect her characters’ feelings of isolation, from deserted New England towns in winter to the deteriorating interior cities of America. We experience landscape as something physical, through every one of our senses, and Majka’s gift for describing place through tactile, visceral details is what makes the atmosphere so palpable: there is the scrape of shovels through the snow in “Nashua”, nipples rubbed red under woollen jumpers in Maine. In certain types of books, where place plays a crucial role, weather seems to emanate from the page. The fourteen stories that make up Cities I’ve Never Lived In come to us shrouded in snow, which contributes to their quiet power. Reading them, I thought frequently of the musician Grouper. Her songs are saturated in reverb and buried in ambient noise, which I imagine reflects the way she wrote them: drowned out by the Oregon rain. Her compositions, like Majka’s stories, are hushed and lonely in a way that creates space for your own introspection. They make you feel melancholy, and yet less alone.

The title of this collection evokes the idea of transience, but also suggests the sense of disorientation and foreignness one feels in the wake of loss. At times like this even the familiar can become strange and uncanny – including the self, and our most intimate memories. All the characters in these stories have this in common: they are lost, because they have lost someone. Throughout the collection, people frequently disappear without explanation. Lovers leave; mothers and fathers abandon their children to the care of others. The closest these characters ever get to closure is through fleeting encounters with strangers who resemble their lost loved ones.

Doppelgängers and doubles haunt this collection like brushes with other, possible worlds. In “Boy with Finch”, a young man finds an old folk art portrait that resembles a photograph of himself as a young child. In another story, Anne describes seeing a man in the street that looks like an ex-lover, but when she calls his name, he doesn’t turn around. “Later I decided it was both him and not him…It was a way to hold something—the memory of him—lightly enough so all possibilities were true.”

These ambiguous apparitions betray a distrust of memory, but also act as mirrors that reflect back what these characters have lost, and their desire to reach out towards the closest substitute. As Majka writes: “We fall out of love only to fall in love with a duplicate of what we’ve left, never understanding that we love what we love and that it doesn’t change.”

Elsewhere, Majka describes her interest in doubling: the idea that “reality could have been altered slightly, leaving traces of another.” Experiencing a major change, like moving cities or a break-up, creates a forking path. It splits you, as if with the transition you leave a part of yourself behind, and become a slightly different version of the person you might have otherwise become. You begin to imagine the other lives you might have lived. I also moved frequently as a child—I lived in ten different houses before I turned thirteen—and learned that this kind of uprooting does strange things to your memory. It helps you organise your memories by location, creating a map, rather than a chronological timeline of experience (an idea reflected by Majka in the structure of the collection). But it also incites a fear of leaving something behind, and worse—forgetting what it was. If you miss something you can’t remember, how can you ever find it again? I started writing as a way of documenting my experiences and holding on to them, but there are other ways of doing this. “What I missed most when I lost a man I loved was someone who held a record of my life from that time,” Anne says, in “Boston”. “It was the way we told each other things. Without them I went back to my quiet life, but with them there was a transcript of living. Transcript, of all words, as a way to describe love.”

Despite all this writing about brokenness and dislocation, there is no fracturing or fragmentation in the prose itself. Majka moves between settings with the same fluidity with which she shifts between past and present, dream and memory. Like W.G. Sebald, whom she cites as an influence, Majka seems comfortable in this nebulous space where imagination and experience are not easily distinguished.

While it can be reductive to assume that a fiction writer’s work is autobiographical, it is difficult not to confuse Anne’s experiences with those of the author, especially when there are several parallels. Majka, like Anne, moved from place to place along the New England coast as a child; she was also once married and is now a single mother. The title story, she stated in an interview with Electric Literature, was originally written as a non-fiction account of a real trip she took visiting the soup kitchens of poor urban places.

Majka herself encourages this confusion. In a piece for Catapult on an encounter with Karl Ove Knausgaard—himself a contemporary purveyor of auto-fiction—she describes being drawn towards books where the narrator could be mistaken for the author, such as Ben Lerner’s 10:04 or Amy Hempel’s Reasons To Live. “I guess my attraction to those books has something to do with an alleviation of loneliness that comes from that proximity to a real person,” she writes. “You sense the cost of it. It is vulnerable. It feels necessary.”

The stories in Cities I’ve Never Lived In feel like there is something at stake – gentle as they are, there is a sense of skin in the game. But as much as they feel intimate, confessional, they are also elusive.

Majka maintains gaps and silences between the linked episodes in a way that mirrors our own memories. For every story about Anne, we imagine there might have been other stories: we never learn how she met her husband or why they decided to separate, but by the end of the book, the narrator feels like someone you’ve known for a long time. This structure—revealing information slowly, and never revealing everything—builds a sense of intimacy. After all, isn’t this often the way we get to know someone, the way we fall in love? Especially those of us that have been hurt, or are lonely – we slowly reveal a little of ourselves at a time, unravelling the past with caution, so as not to be crushed by the weight of all that lost time. What Majka builds across these fourteen stories is like a constellation of memory – bright, hot truths shine against the darkness of all we cannot know.

Majka recently taught a workshop in New York that she named “Writing from Desperation”. One of the remarkable things about this collection is that though these stories seem steeped in sadness, they’re never melodramatic. There’s no self-pity, no hand-wringing. Her prose is graceful and restrained. Her observations are crystalline.

So often we’re told that a story is in the heat of the moment, in the middle of a calamity, but it’s often in the aftermath that we see what someone is made of. This is true in life as well as in fiction: we call it strength of character. If conflict in a story is like a storm that the characters have to weather, in Cities I’ve Never Lived In that storm is clearing, and the book is full of the wisdom of having survived the experience.

When Majka talks about “writing from desperation”, I think what she is suggesting is not a frenzied purge, but writing as a method of survival. For some of us, it is simply necessary – it’s the only way to make something coherent and beautiful out of life when it fails to be either of those things. Writing can give shape and purpose to our feelings of longing and vulnerability, making us a little less lonely, giving us a place to belong. As David Foster Wallace said, “our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.”

Madelaine Lucas is an Australian writer and musician based in Brooklyn. She studies fiction in Columbia University’s graduate MFA program and is an assistant editor at NOON Annual. Her work has appeared in The Australian, The Lifted Brow and Meanjin. Her story ‘Dog Story’ won the 2014 Overland/Victoria University Prize for Emerging Writers.