March 2016

Kea Krause


Cities I've Never Lived In by Sara Majka

In Sara Majka's debut collection of short stories, Cities I've Never Lived In, sadness is familiar and strangers resemble loved ones and experience creates wounds that aren't meant to heal but to be explored. There is an ominous comfort in not being okay. Majka's prose evokes a spectrum of oceanic blues and greys: low, winter skies out over the Atlantic, and waves that wash up on a northeastern shore and recede, making the pebbles clack like marbles in their wake. Amidst the melancholy are the writer's recurring avatars and themes: a disappearing father who is often replaced by a specter, a husband who turned out to be a disappointment, and the abstraction of having a child. There are missing girls and moving islands, being broke and brokenness. In all of this is "the feeling of being nowhere, or in someone else's life, or between lives." For Majka, the land of despair is a magical place; the land of despair is Maine.

Of the book's fourteen stories, several inhabit a zone where verisimilitude and fantasy straddle a delicate line. Majka's idiosyncratic lack of realism in these stories resembles Rivka Galchen's recent short story collection, American Innovations, where inanimate objects can move themselves and misplaced takeout phone calls lead to inexplicable, one-woman missions. Similarly, in "Boy with Finch," a disappearing work of art and a protagonist's search for it via a secret staircase leads the reader to wonder if the painting was ever there in the first place. In "The Museum Assistant," a woman working at a museum without knowing why becomes fixated by a man who visits one day, only to later discover a decades-old security camera tape that shows her as a child, milling around a gallery in the museum with this same mysterious man. Some stories do indeed court the supernatural, but Majka wants the identity of the apparition to constantly be in question: "Seeing a ghost, having your own ghost, being the man at the end of a long tunnel, makes you into a ghost, too, separates you from the people around you." One can haunt and be haunted.

Even when Majka's stories do stay within reality's bounds, however, some of her characters act in ways that are so far removed from what a human would do -- so inhuman -- as in the case of the chronically child-abandoning father personality who leaves his children with such heartbreaking heartlessness, repeatedly, in several stories, that even behaviors can be seen as hallucinatory events. There is no protection from the impenetrable emptiness along Majka's eastern seaboard, where sadness is not so much a feeling, but a physical -- and oftentimes mystical -- place.

In the collection's standout story, "Saint Andrews Hotel," a protagonist named Peter comes from an island-dwelling family that abandons him in an institution on the mainland after he tries to commit suicide as a small child. Peter lives in the institution until he is twenty-one, when he moves to Portland and gets a job at a hotel that resembles the institution from which he has recently fled. Here is another one of Majka's doppelgangers, and of Peter's fortuitous discovery of the Saint Andrews Hotel she writes, "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."

In a boat, Peter seeks the island where his parents raised him, only to find a tiny sand dune covered in beach grass. The island, he learns, is not on any maps. He settles into a life that soon gets interrupted by people he recognizes from the island arriving to the mainland via a phantom boat, but any contact with the people of his past yields inconclusive results. Perhaps this new guest at the Saint Andrews is his mother, but interaction with her, though it conjures familiarity, doesn't summon the maternal relationship back to him. Is this or is this not the woman who allowed him to wither away in a mental institution his entire youth? Is the island still out there? But in this story, like many others in Cities I've Never Lived In, the lack of answer is the answer. Wanting is "impractical, painful."

Often Majka's narrators are retelling stories -- almost nostalgically so -- of sadder times, yet the reader is not convinced that they have graduated to any sort of happier circumstances. Characters come with preexisting wounds, from divorce or abandonment, and often seem equipped with the words to tell about the sadness -- "I had felt, sometimes, like a bird in between windows, not able to get out, and not understanding why" -- but not necessarily the tools to fix it. Instead they search and travel to New York, to Portland, to homeless shelters across the country, and are frequently able to pinpoint why there is the need to search but not the ability to identify the object they are looking for. In this confusion, Majka constructs eerie and relatable replicas of the aphasia that comes from prolonged and sometimes inexplicable loss.

Because of the depressed and bewildered tone that permeates a majority of her stories, we worry about Majka's characters. The tension of not knowing whether or not her protagonists are okay is uncomfortable, but glows with a sort of precious agonizing. Will they remember to eat? Be able to write again? One day move on?

In "The Museum Assistant," her protagonist ponders how she used to feel: "I was worried back then, not that something bad was about to happen, but that it already had only I hadn't realized it yet." Again, here is the amnesia that plagues many of her characters -- the inability to know entirely what went wrong. There is little coherence in complete darkness, but Majka dismisses the groping. Though the inaccuracy of memory as a literary theme is well-trodden territory by now, Majka plays with it, using doubles of loved ones and memories, mirroring struggle rather than solution. There is a transience of time and place in many stories, with tense switching regularly as narrators weave in and out of living and recalling their pasts. Her stories move and undulate across boundaries, intimate like first-person essays, yet enigmatic like fairy tales. This is the book's greatest success: without a distinct form, the stories cannot be held to one; like ghosts, they can travel through walls.

Cities I've Never Lived In by Sara Majka
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555977313
192 pages