“Only a Different Life”: On Sara Majka’s Cities I’ve Never Lived In

Matthew Oglesby

Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2016. 192 pages. $16.00.

The stories in Sara Majka’s debut collection Cities I’ve Never Lived In are linked by a common narrator named Anna who recollects the years that follow her painful divorce. For the most part, the stories take place in coastal Maine and center on characters like Anna who are at loose ends and struggling to cobble together a minimal existence. Some of the stories recall Anna’s childhood; others take place during her marriage. Others do not involve Anna at all, and instead Anna recounts the stories of people she knows—like Majka, Anna is a writer. There is an admirable stoicism and wry humor in the way these characters see their lives. “Don’t talk too much,” one man remembers his mother telling him, “If you stay quiet, people will assume complexity.”

Yet to describe this book as a collection of linked stories depicting the lonely and difficult lives of disappointed characters does it a disservice by making it sound like something you’ve already read, when in fact, Majka’s voice and world are wholly her own. A real feeling of warmth and nostalgia lifts these stories above the ordinary. There is also a gentle streak of magic. In perhaps my favorite story, “Saint Andrews Hotel,” a boy is sent to a mental institution on the mainland, only to find, when it comes time to return home, that the island he is from has disappeared. In “Boy With Finch,” Anna’s childhood friendship with a boy named Eli Cotter is described simply and realistically, before, with a single wonderful observation, the story becomes something else. Leaving an antiques shop, Anna stops in front of a puddle “to find the building reflected there”:

Light skimmed over it, and it wavered in the wind. It was amazing to me—one couldn’t look at a building in a puddle and not know that it existed, that all of life existed there, only a different life. Where did the second life go, if not further? If there were people inside the building when it was reflected, weren’t they reflected as well?

This idea of doubling, that “reality could [be] slightly altered, leaving traces of another,” appears throughout the book. “I was trying to explain another world,” Majka writes in “Boston,” the final story in the collection, “one I had always wanted to find. . . . Some light—the light at the end of the day, the way it hit the pigeons that flew around the steeple, the way it hit the sides of the building—that light felt like entrances to another world.”

In “Boy With Finch,” an attic door leads to a shop where a different version of the world seems to be preserved. It is never quite clear; the fantastical elements are never fully resolved, a decision I found both frustrating and beguiling. I’ve never read a story quite like “Boy with Finch,” where the possibility of the fantastic is introduced and then so offhandedly glossed. Anna’s preoccupation with doubles and doppelgangers, with the dead, the disappeared, and the abandoned, provides a sense of unease, an atmosphere of the uncanny. Majka’s ambiguity may also hint at a darker psychological current, a suggestion of mental illness that runs throughout the collection.

“I wasn’t well in the way that I would be several years later, and the wave of the power lines in the midday sun seemed alive to me,” Anna tells us in the opening story, “Reveron’s Dolls,” which features a visit to an exhibit by the “mentally ill, probably schizophrenic” artist Armando Reveron. “Boy with Finch” ends with Anna’s mother taking her to a mental health clinic: “She knew one of the doctors and wanted me examined.”

Even the more strictly realistic stories are distinctly dreamlike. Another favorite of mine, “Miniatures,” begins with a description of a store full of knickknacks where Anna finds a set of miniature books. “The books reminded me of something I hadn’t thought of for years,” Anna tells us. “Once, when I was little, my father brought home an antique dollhouse.” Turning on a sentence, we move back in time to Anna’s childhood. Anna remembers her father’s thin hands, “red at the knuckles and along the webbing between his fingers”—and from here we peel back yet another layer of memory. This time the transition comes through dialogue: “Well now,” Anna’s father asks, inspecting the dollhouse, “do you think the blackberries are ripe yet?” Suddenly we are picking berries on the beach with Anna and her family, and then, in the next moment, on the ferry to the mainland to sell the dollhouse. All of this occurs in three short paragraphs that compress imagery and description into vivid flashes that give an intimate sense of character: Anna tells us that her mother, while dressing her, “pinched her mouth in whenever she did laces or buttons.” The next paragraph swerves in a new direction: “On the mainland, we went to my grandfather’s. . . . Maybe it was then that my father left—it was hard to know for sure.” Anna and her brother Stuart then stay for several months in their grandparents’ farmhouse, where Majka transitions deftly into yet another scene:

In the library, [her grandfather] turned the pages of a book about France . . . I think it was his way of saying what was happening to us—being left there—would only be one event in our life. That life would be many events; this was just one, and going to France could be another. He gripped my shoulder as if I were a loaf of bread, tried a different grip, then gave up altogether. Your father, he said, but then he didn’t continue.

“There were flowers everywhere,” the next paragraph begins, and yet another memory has commenced, of Anna and Stuart in a field of flowers. The stories proceed like this, revealing layer after layer; “Miniatures” covers all of this ground in a mere five pages. Majka excels at moving lightly through time, restlessly backward and forward, reminiscent of Alice Munro, both in how her stories unfold and in the thematic territory she explores: loneliness, loss, absence, abandonment. Very few of the stories are told in a linear way, along a traditional narrative arc. Instead they drift like daydreams from one moment to the next, creating a tapestry of memory that gives them the quality of recollection, of told story. W. G. Sebald is never mentioned, but Robert Walser is, and an “old edition of a Thomas Bernhard novel” makes an appearance. These influences are felt strongly—in particular Sebald (although Majka is less grave and scholarly)—not only in the free-flowing narration, where everything is framed and refracted through memory and meager “plot,” but in how Majka deliberately straddles the line between fact and fiction. Though Majka names her narrator Anna, she seems to court autobiographical comparison, and, in an unexpected move, the title story is a piece of nonfiction in which Sara (in this case) travels to various soup kitchens in heartland cities, talking to the poor and homeless.

But it is Majka’s obsession with absence that most recalls Sebald. Anna rarely mentions her father, but his absence haunts the collection. A little girl is kidnapped from an apartment, and Anna begins to imagine children as “souls in a hall, waiting for someone to open the door so they could pass through.” Anna muses: “I felt the loss of the child—perhaps as a representation, of the little girl my father had left, of the little girl I had never been able to become, of the little girl I wanted to have.” In another story, Anna tries to reimagine the last night of a “lost girl” who disappeared off the end of a pier. Elsewhere, a man does not recognize his children in a photograph; an artist whose wife has abandoned him in turn imagines abandoning his young daughter because he cannot “handle the intimacy of being alone with her.” Anna, working as a museum assistant, watches an old security tape and recognizes a girl who looks like herself approaching a man who may or may not be her father. Time and again, Majka attempts to know the absence at the center of her narrator’s life—a task that she knows she will never complete, as she notes movingly: “How strange we are. How different we are from how we think we are. 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.” Majka’s stories wander through a maze of memory and recollection, much as Anna wanders between the homes and apartments of friends and acquaintances. Her characters are lonely; many of them struggle to find work; they live difficult, itinerant existences. Certainty is hard to come by, and that, to my mind, is precisely what makes this collection so good.

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