Cities I’ve Never Lived In, by Sara Majka. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, February 2016. 192 pages. $16.00, paper.
From the very start of Cities I’ve Never Lived In, Majka plunks the reader into a world where opposites coexist: coming and going, marriage and divorce, the past and the present. She prepares us to have our expectations upset, to see the contradictions our lives bear and how our worlds can hold disparate concepts—love and loss, reality and unreality—at the same time. The book opens with the following paragraph:
Maybe ten or eleven years ago, when I was in the middle of a divorce from a man I still loved, I took the train into the city. We were both moving often during this time, as if it were the best solution to a shattered life: to move from place to place, trying to thread together, if not our marriage and our lives, then something in ourselves. Richard was teaching in the Hudson Valley, and I had moved back to Maine, but would go sometimes to see him, and we would take long walks through the estates along the river, and drive up to Hudson, where there was a café that we liked, with an outside patio made of concrete. The croissants were carefully made there, though they served everything on paper plates.
Exemplifying these kinds of tensions, she writes late in the opening story of “the sort of carelessness that love can evoke, where things can be taken with great seriousness, but also without any at all.”
The interrelated stories are told mainly by Anne, a woman who has seen her own share of contradictions. There’s a solidity to the writing that renders very clearly images that work well to balance the dreaminess of the stories’ subjects. Majka skillfully keeps the reader and the characters from assigning too concretely a meaning to her beautifully clear details. In “Saint Andrews Hotel,” she writes:
One day the ferry went out to sea but the mainland never came. The captain turned back fearing he would run out of gas. He tried again the next day, but still couldn’t find the shore. In time, he took it as a matter of course, as they all did, as they forgot their desires with some relief, as the desires when they arose had been impractical, painful. One man who painted in the loft of an old barn began to paint canvases of blue trees. The islanders hung themselves in their living rooms, and there was something hopeful in it, as if they had kept a belief in the symbolic power of beauty.
The stories themselves take place for the most part in New England, particularly Maine, and are told in the stoic voice of the New Englander, which is a powerful contrast to the dream-like quality that is tied to the recurring feeling that everything is fleeting. There are ghosts of lovers in the street, both there and not there, unborn babies, absent fathers, sons who disappear. Anne seems through most of the collection heartbroken and unmoored and chronicles her life along a timeline marked by romantic loss. Time in most of the stories is measured in relation to the breakup of Anne’s marriage, beginning with the opening line about her life in relation to her soon-to-be ex-husband: “Maybe ten or eleven years ago, when I was in the middle of a divorce from a man I still loved, I took the train into the city.” Other stories have similar placeholders, a way of dividing her life into manageable segments: “It reminded me of a time before I met my husband,” “back before I was married,” “in the middle of a divorce,” “during the trip, the lover I left behind stopped calling,” “It had been awhile without love,” “For years after my divorce I saw a therapist,” “when I spent the winter in Provincetown—it was when my marriage was ending.”
These times and places always position Anne in relation to the man she is without, and it would be easy to read Anne as a woman who is defined by her relationships with men, but that seems too simple and negates her strength as a character. The stories are about being unmoored and lost; they are not just about being without a man, and yet at times they read as if they are. It’s an interesting tension. In the final story, Majka writes:
What I missed most when I lost a man I loved was someone who held a record of my life from that time. 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. But we all want, in some way, to be able to record our life, and for some reasons lovers do that for each other. Of all things. Of all jobs for them to be given.
And it’s this record of her life that Anne is still looking for, a solid document to hold in her hands, which in the end, is what this book becomes.
Erin Flanagan is the author of two short story collections published by the University of Nebraska Press: The Usual Mistakes (2005) and It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories (2013). Her fiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, The Missouri Review, The Connecticut Review, the Best New American Voices anthology series, and elsewhere. She’s held fellowships to Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers’ conferences, and this summer served as faculty at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop.