Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka (A Public Space/Graywolf Press, 2016)
Early in Sara Majka’s short story collection, Cities I’ve Never Lived In, the protagonist, Anne, gets the sudden urge to tell a former lover about a high school friend of hers: “I wanted to tell him how I had cared for his person, Eli, who had shown me a painting but had disappeared. About how lonely I had been in Jonesport. Saying it simply so he would understand.” “Saying it simply so we understand” is the best phrase I can find to describe the consciousness of these fourteen linked stories, where “simply” doesn’t mean “easily,” or “lacking in complexity,” but, rather, a letting go of posturing and pretense. There’s no caginess, no strain toward profundity. No sarcasm or show-offy wit.
It’s easier to describe this consciousness by what it is not because what it is is such a rarity. Majka has said that these stories draw from autobiography, situating her collection in the recent cache of books that blur the lines between fact and fiction. But Majka’s stories manage this differently than any book I’ve encountered to date. She pulls away from the painstaking chronology and detail of Knausgaard; she adds intimacy to Sebald’s mental wanderings and claustrophobic stillness. More importantly, the truth of the matter seems to lie more in the telling than in what is told.
Anne, the character we follow around New England, has been through a divorce recently, and her first-person narration sounds like the distracted way I feel my own brain functioning when there’s something huge and hugely charged on my mind. To give an example, “Miniatures” starts in store where Anne slips a set of miniature books into her pocket, and in barely six pages transforms into a memory of her father selling a dollhouse and her father leaving, before blurring again shifting back into focus to center on Anne’s brother Stewart, then lingering on Stewart years later, who, in the story’s last line, “sent letters composed of words cut from a newspaper—they looked like the sort of thing that kidnappers sent—but it would be a while before I saw him again.” Most of the stories are like this: they move back and forth in time and place, digress within digressions, end up in places you wouldn’t predict.
Amidst all this movement, there’s a consistent exploration of aloneness and the ways we connect. In the title story, Anne travels around the country by bus and eats in soup kitchens. Alone in a hostel one day, she feels relief whenever the heating vent breaks the silence. Another day, two women tell her the story of how one of their husbands set their house on fire, killing three children, and Anne finds herself immersed in their lives more than her own: “Increasingly, the sadness of the people I met was creating the fabric around me, and everyday life was beginning to recede, to lose meaning.” At the same time, a question emerges: what do we do when we’re given a story like this? There’s a consideration of the responsibility of an artist—Can we photograph strangers? (Usually no.) Can art be too compassionate? (Sometimes yes.)—and storytelling as a survival mechanism. In yet another city, Anne calls her lover, and “told small stories about what I had packed, and about looking in the thrift store for a pair of lighter shoes and another shirt. It wasn’t like me to repeat stories, but I kept repeating those.”
The stories in Cities I’ve Never Lived In exist in a space of deep interiority that allow for these kinds of quiet thoughts and insights to take center stage. The effect is never, as it could be, heavy-handed, maudlin, or solipsistic. Perhaps this is because the thoughts aren’t—and don’t try to be—revelatory or startling in themselves, but in the disarming fact that they’re voiced at all, so plainly, with such unflinching commitment to an underrated quality in life and fiction: the nakedness of being human, or, by another name, the vulnerability.