Cities I've Never Lived In

Feministing Reads: Sara Majka’s Cities I’ve Never Lived In

Nostalgia usually gets described as a lingering preoccupation with the past. But Milan Kundera, Czech novelist of nostalgia, describes it as a feeling so powerful that it can telescope the future into the present. “You can suffer nostalgia in the presence of the beloved,” he writes in Identity, “if you glimpse a future where the beloved is no more.”

These endless glimpses are why it’s so difficult to read Cities I’ve Never Lived In, Sara Majka’s debut short story collection. Their narrator, Anne, not only misses things but anticipates herself missing things. As she notes at the start of one story: “I didn’t want another period of instability, and I felt the suspension you feel when you’re fine, but you’re worried it won’t last, and there’s nothing you can do to make it stay.”

Cities I've Never Lived InAt times she is even nostalgic for the present moment. In bed, at the end of one story, a younger lover tells Anne that he hopes to save up to live on a small farm. He then asks her what kind of “foolish things” she hopes for: “Something very similar, I said, not wanting to tell him otherwise, that hopes softened in time, and now I mostly thought about things I’d miss when they were gone—the smell of him, the way he moved, the street I lived on.” She seems to have little to gain from nostalgia, but suffers from its longing nonetheless. She doesn’t necessarily want to go home, just elsewhere.

Majka’s Anne travels across the country to collect other people’s stories and to better tell her own. “I was quick and sad,” she says of herself, “and you knew by looking at me that nothing had gone quite right. I don’t know. What do we know of ourselves?”

She frequents thrift and antique shops across the country, and her stories are like these shops of old and borrowed belongings—lingering with baggage, a little musty. Her sentences unfold as if they have traveled a long distance to get to the reader—so far that her prose had to be continually unburdened, stripped down.

The frankness is often arresting. “It’s hard to talk about love,” she reflects in the opening story. “It’s as if it closes when we’re not experiencing it and becomes impossible to recall.” Other times, she is so plain-spoken as to approach a total vagueness. Many pronouns refer to “no one,” “someone,” “some people.” An ex-lover boards the bus “in the way he had of moving, as if breaking something that was attaching him to where he was.” Elsewhere, Anne parks her car to note that “the clouds were going over the sun in the incredible way that happened there.”

But there is something defiant, and likely deliberate, in Majka’s refusal to name the many objects of her world. It lets the stories occupy the foggy realism of fable, or hearsay. What Majka’s hazy prose captures most acutely is not characters or scenes but the feeling of remembering a feeling. When Anne recognizes she is falling in love, she writes:

I remembered a story by Alice Munro in which a woman, sensing she is falling love, and fearing what had happened the other times, gets in a car and starts to drive and keeps on going. It was a snowy day when I thought about this and I sat in my bedroom and imagined waiting it out, how long it might take. Outside there was the scrape of shovels. But for what other reason are we alive?

Cities I’ve Never Lived In fits neatly with the literary memoirs of her contemporaries, also at Graywolf Press. In simply a few seasons, the small publisher has indisputably revitalized the lyrical essay, releasing genre-bending work like Eula Biss’ On Immunity, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, and Sarah Manugso’s Ongoingness. Sparse and intertextual, these writers blend theory with memoir, political concerns with personal anecdotes. And yet Majka’s work stakes fiction, not memoir, as its awning.

Reading the seemingly semi-autobiographical tales, I often wondered what Majka had to gain by her chosen genre. She has acknowledged in several interviews that the stories draw on her life experiences, or are “riding the line between fact and fiction” as the back of the book puts it. At times, Majka is so caught up in a mode of compulsive documentary realism that she might have been better served if people didn’t expect her work to fit the neat seams of fiction.

Indeed, in a scene of meta-commentary, her collection’s title story makes a strong case against writing fiction that could be mistaken for literary memoir. Anne visits an exhibit on hunger at the county museum and later tells her mother that she doesn’t think the show was “effective art, as it was too compassionate.” She explains: “He wanted to portray these people as they were, and, in that way, it was a good study, but I wanted more. I wanted to know how he saw these people. I wanted him to forget who they were.”

Like the artist she criticizes, Majka’s tone never wavers it its direct simplicity, in its refusal to embellish. Nothing unbelievable happens. No one is redeemed. The strength and difficulty of her stories—their overwhelming sadness—emerge largely from their seeming lack of artifice: the simplicity of how things fall apart and how rarely Majka wants to glue them back together.

Ava Kofman is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn. She is a guest contributor to Feministing.

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