The Odd Woman and the City

Vivian Gornick

I picked up a dog-eared copy of this book from the library, which came in handy, as I didn’t have to feel too bad about refolding corners down on the existing creases as I made my way through it. A memoir of New York City and walking and relationships, both romantic and platonic, Gornick meanders through the divide between the fantasies of our lives and their actualities through vignettes of experiences of those themes, quotes from writers, as well as overheard conversations. She takes a lot of walks with her friend Leonard, referring to she and him together as “a pair of solitary travelers slogging through the country of our lives, meeting up from time to time at the outer limit to give each other border reports.”

The habit of loneliness persists. Leonard tells me that if I don’t convert the loneliness into useful solitude, I’ll be my mother’s daughter forever. He is right, of course. 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.

She describes walking and daydreaming daily for many years until suddenly at sixty, the time she spends considering her “fantasized tomorrow” brings a bitter taste to her mouth. Yet now she is overwhelmed by “the immensity of the vacated present.” Months pass before she tunes into the effects of her street encounters. “I became alert not to the meaning but to the astonishment of human existence. It was there on the street, I realized, that I was filling my skin, occupying the present.”

There’s a breathtaking story of her friend Johnny Dylan, an actor who had a stroke that left him aphasic. A few years before he died, he staged a performance of a Beckett monologue, interrupting himself with a tape of a performance of the same monologue when he was younger. She describes the experience of “the dramatic, knowing voice of the forty-year-old John Dylan continually up against the cracked, exalted one of the Dylan who by now had lived Beckett’s script” as truly experiencing Beckett for the first time.

My only disappointment in this book was in the dubious way she referenced peoples’ race. In Gornick’s scenes of observed moments, she tends to refer to her perception of someone’s race only if they aren’t white or only to contrast the white person against the person of color. I assume that only because in nearly all cases that detail seemed unnecessary to the anecdote. But worse is when she describes walking up Fifth Avenue: “Once the dominating color of this crowd was white, now it is black and brown. Once it wore blue and white collars, now it is in mufti. Once it was law-abiding, now it is not.” She goes on to say “New York belongs to me as it does to them: but no more so. We are all here on Fifth Avenue for the same reason and by virtue of the same right.” Yet the overall superior attitude I inferred was a distraction.