The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick
While the only correlation there is between my favorite polymath ever, the writer and photographer, Teju Cole, and the essayist, Susan Sontag, is that one (Cole) has been inspired by and introduced me to the work of the other (Sontag), I felt like I was trudging along twin paths of their sensibilities when I started reading Vivian Gornick’s 2015 memoir, The Odd Woman and the City.
Turns out, Gornick is the odd woman, a proclamation she made early on that had me searching for reasons why. Was it because she talked about her friends, in particular Leonard, a gay man and all the ways they conducted their friendship on the first few pages of the book—their weekly meetings, un-acted impulses of calling each other in between, the urgent cycle of examining the unlived life? Was it her incessant inquiry of friendship and its demands, its bestowals? Was it the way she scrutinized all relationships, whether intimate or not? Or was it her tangible preferences, a certain indifference to the acquisition of stuff, a “peasant-like discomfort to color, texture, abundance?”
I’m still not finding reasons warranting Gornick’s self-inscribed oddity, although her writing style did remind me of Sontag’s journals, as if I was reading the latter’s second collection of diaries, As Consciousness Harnessed to Flesh. Their interrogations were persistent, as both women tried to understand the aches in their souls; as if by writing their way through lingering questions, clarity would not be so elusive anymore. Gornick writes about love, loss and longing, even analyzing the life cycle of past relationships in The Odd Woman, and I remember Sontag doing a similar thing, writing in her journals about how she was supposed to be with one of her lovers, what kind of temperament was needed to maintain the equilibrium of a relationship, as much as the odd woman poured over every detail without fail. The back and forth between the two books reveals how not unusual it is to obsess about matters of the heart, that we all get fixated to some degree on the violence of failed relationships. What makes Gornick and Sontag’s writing remarkable, however, isn’t perceived oddity so much as its willingness and ability to bare it all out on the page.
Gornick is just as keen on introspective explorations as she is with intimate relationships, marriages and friendships. This examination of the self, particularly within the yoking of friendships in the city that never sleeps, lends a certain rhythm to the book; the grit of New York City becomes the inner landscape. Everyday occurrences are turned into small mysteries: snippets of conversations on the street as metaphors, scenes aboard the transit authority as modern-day tableaus, supermarket spectacles that double as Greek tragedies. I thought of Cole’s, Known and Strange Things—essentially new ways of seeing the world. Drawing from photography and writing, Cole captures fleeting moments the same way Gornick does, immortalizing everything her eyes are silent witnesses to. Her writing functions as snapshots, as if I was looking at Cole’s pictures myself, with the right kind of light and inflection.
If examining too intently or looking too closely is an oddity, I might as well be an odd woman myself. –Pia Cortez