Cities I've Never Lived In by Sara Majka
Graywolf Press, 2016; 160 pp
Reviewed by Liz Martin
New England has a particular culture of stubborn resilience built up from nor’easterly winds, rocky coasts, and Puritan ancestry that continue to affect even those who move away. While many of the stories in Sara Majka’s debut collection, Cities I’ve Never Lived In, do not physically take place in New England, their narrator and her heart very much stem from there, as they avoid giving up in the face of jagged uncertainty.
A series of interconnected stories told by a single narrator, Anne, who has recently divorced from her husband, make up this collection. The stories crisscross through her past, and they occasionally step out of her timeline all together to allow Anne to relate stories of coastal legends or personal looks at village gossip. In either case, these are stories of the loneliness, reflection, and listlessness that come from losing true north. These stories question how one can simultaneously live a fully present life while seeking a sense of wholeness and belonging.
The stories are controlled in a way the narrator’s life is not. Each moment the stories give as clues to the narrator feels precisely released as steam from a pressure cooker. The result is satisfying; by the conclusion, the reader has joined Anne’s journey in the tumultuous, and not quite complete, healing process. However, on their own many of these stories are unsatisfying. Although the first sentence of the first story, “Reverón’s Dolls,” reveals the narrator’s divorce from her ex, Richard, it is not until the second story, “Miniatures,” that Anne is named. In both of these stories Anne narrates from off to the side and always just a bit out of focus. If the collection has a flaw (or perhaps a strength), it’s that it leaves you wanting a larger sense of purpose and point until nearly the end.
These times can be frustrating. Even when Anne is present, she often flits in and out of other people’s stories, experiencing life secondhand through the dreams and dismays of others, which makes for an unknowable narrator. Yet there is an honest vulnerability that stems directly from this, too, which ranks right alongside David Foster Wallace’s short story, “The Depressed Person,” for its skill in capturing how little matters when one is emotionally overwhelmed, in this case by loneliness, longing, and sorrow.
And, as when one has a naive friend who does the same thing over and over again expecting different results, there were times when I wanted to shake Anne. In the title story of the collection, it reaches an emotional arc when Anne travels to visit a series of food kitchens in other states:
I had volunteered in kitchens in the past and had found it comforting. I would work for a few hours and then would sign my name and get in line and eat, scrunched over, not poor enough to eat there if I hadn’t worked, but not a volunteer doing it out of goodness. Lost, probably, in ways that made me more comfortable in places like those—the church halls, the Styrofoam plates, the trays, the gentle feeling of caretaking and cafeteria lines—and lost perhaps in ways understandable to those around me.
At first this story annoyed me—what’s not said here is the privilege that must exist to think that lost love is akin to hunger or homelessness, being able to “visit” soup kitchens, and only visit ones in “small interior cities”—but after that initial feeling passed, I was overcome by Anne’s desperation in this story. She goes out of her way to be among people who society has ignored in an attempt to feel connection, but right from the start she doesn’t fully know why she is doing this. Anne has gone to seek stories about others, and instead ended up with a story entirely about herself for the first time.
This is an easy collection to love, though a difficult one, perhaps, to like. It is filled with shadows, Anne herself chief among them, but as it is short, it may be taken in sum for its quiet delights.