By the early ’70s, Vivian Gornick had the insight that would shape much of her career as a literary critic and memoirist: Love is not the answer. Approaching her mid-thirties, she was exhausted, miserable, and lonely. She had been married and divorced, and then married and divorced again. She had the desire to be a writer, but not the discipline. Romance was the most powerful form of procrastination. “With the right man at my side,” she later wrote, “I could do it all.”
She didn’t find the “right man” and, it turned out, she didn’t have to: She got a job writing for The Village Voice, and her editor sent her to report on the women’s liberation movement. She met Ti-Grace Atkinson, Kate Millett, and Shulamith Firestone—feminists of the second wave who wanted more than equal rights; they wanted to overthrow the entire system of sexual relations. Gornick collected some of their writings in a furious, colossal anthology, Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness (1971), and as she adopted their ideas, her life came into focus. “Sex is the refuge of the mindless,” Valerie Solanas wrote in her radical SCUM Manifesto, a modest proposal for the abolition of men. Gornick quoted her, adding that sex “is to women what alcohol is to the alcoholic or drugs to the addict.” As long as love and marriage remained at the center of a woman’s life, she would experience herself as “half-formed,” more preoccupied with her desirability than with her own desires, always missing out on the struggle to develop and define the self.
Gornick’s new memoir, The Odd Woman and the City, is about constructing a life that doesn’t serve love, whether through hope or regret, indulgence or renunciation. There still aren’t many models for this. Kate Bolick is spurred on by Gornick’s experiences in her own new book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, which makes a case for the cultural richness of the single life. In Eric Klinenberg’s 2012 book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, he cites Gornick as one of the few writers to have registered the challenges of unpartnered life. More often, especially in fiction, singleness is evoked as bleak and unstable, as in the recent novels of Tom McCarthy, Claire Messud, and Joseph O’Neill.
The title of Gornick’s book points to one model—George Gissing’s late-Victorian novel The Odd Women—and sets up some of the problems with her quest: The principled attempt to live on your own comes with emotional complications, not least the siege of loneliness. Here, and in previously published essays, Gornick identifies with Gissing’s heroine, Rhoda Nunn: an independent and intelligent woman, who rejects the “unconditional surrender” of marriage, without reckoning on the emotional fallout. “How easy it was,” Gornick writes, “to call out angrily, To hell with all that!” And yet: “How chastening to experience the uncontrollable force of feeling that steadily undermines these defiant simplicities.”
Giving up on love has been the work of a lifetime for Gornick. Born in 1935 in the Bronx, she grew up in a crammed tenement, where everyone’s affairs could be seen up close. While their upstairs neighbor would climb down the fire escape every day to visit a lover, the woman next door took refuge at the Gornicks’ when her husband wanted sex. It was a suffocating atmosphere, in which everyone allowed love’s oddities to shape their lives.
Gornick’s first book, In Search of Ali Mahmoud: An American Woman in Egypt (1973), coincided with her feminist awakening. In 1969, Gornick dated an Egyptian graduate student named Ali Mahmoud. A year after they broke up, Gornick proposed writing a book about Egypt’s educated middle class, using Mahmoud’s family as a case study. But romance soon seeps into her report: Gornick falls in love with Mahmoud’s family and with a romanticized, melancholic version of Cairo. She finds herself sleeping with one of Mahmoud’s cousins and thinks, “Am I going to go through every one of them in turn?” She wasn’t seeing anything new, and she didn’t seem to realize it.
In subsequent work, Gornick was more outward-looking. She produced an oral history of American communism and a series of sketches of women scientists. Long aware of the forces that can undermine individual efforts at liberation, she dissected the pull of family and tradition in her 1987 memoir Fierce Attachments, an account of her embattled relationship with her mother. Meanwhile, in her personal essays, she evoked the rhythms of single life and its discontents.
Gornick had always written about literature, but now she turned to the limitations of the love story. She is perhaps best known for doing this in her 1997 volume of criticism, The End of the Novel of Love, a work championed by younger writers such as Laura Miller and Elaine Blair. Even the most “wonderfully told tale” of unraveling family life and marital infidelity, she argues, doesn’t deliver the jolt we get when Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina risk it all for love. Once so powerful, the romance narrative had begun to look very different to Gornick’s generation. The story of self-discovery had to unfold in another arena.
The Odd Woman And The City is Gornick’s most ambitious attempt yet at the nonromance plot. The book is loosely structured around Gornick’s friendship with “a witty, intelligent gay man” called Leonard. Friendships can, of course, have the same narrative arc as romances, and early in their acquaintance, Gornick thinks that she and Leonard are “one.” In fact, they’re mostly foul-weather friends. Both of them revel in negativity, finding mutual disagreeability invigorating, until suddenly it’s an irritation. So although they often resolve to see each other more than once a week, they never actually make the date. The distance is a sustaining feature of their relationship.
Much of what happens in Odd Woman has nothing to do with Leonard at all. The book is composed of brief vignettes, all of them set in New York, many played staccato. There are reflections on her (minimally identified) former lovers and explosive scenes with her mother. There are reconsiderations of episodes from literature and film; short biographies of underappreciated female writers, such as Evelyn Scott and Mary Britton Miller; and caustic, succinct interactions with strangers.
In its angular form, Gornick’s memoir resembles the 1970s fiction of Renata Adler and Elizabeth Hardwick. Adler’s Speedboat and Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights portrayed the consciousness of a woman, humming with intelligence, refracted through an urban social landscape that was open to them in a way it never had been before. Like them, Gornick hunts for broken resolutions, broken plots, and neuroses. “What’s new. What else. What next,” is one of the refrains in Adler’s Pitch Dark, a hunger that Gornick shares. The immediacy she finds in city life is an antidote to the years of yearning and stagnation. “The street keeps moving, and you’ve got to love the movement,” Gornick writes. “You’ve got to find the composition of the rhythm, lift the story from the motion. ... Civilization is breaking up? The city is deranged? ... Move faster. Find the story line more quickly.”
Among the substitutes for love that Gornick proposes in this book, the city is almost as potent as friendship. She styles herself as a flaneur, one of the masses seeking moments of recognition in the crowd. In a drugstore, she and a 90-year-old friend deliberate on men and their underwhelming sexual performance, when they’re interrupted by a laugh from the man next to them. Gornick: “We’re sleeping with the same guys, right?” The man: “And with the same ratio of satisfaction.” This sequence of provocation and recognition, the brief collapses of the distance between strangers, is a ritual for Gornick. “Together we have performed,” she concludes triumphantly.
If some of this sounds lonely, it is. Gornick’s memoir is a coming to terms with her outsider status—a richly felt and, to some extent, inspiriting one. But it doesn’t describe the integration of the single woman into society and, because of this, it’s a limited and individual response to a much broader problem.
Although Gornick emerged from the feminist movement of the ’70s, she’s distanced herself from the work her contemporaries have gone on to do and from current feminist thought. She’s ambivalent about the advances made by women’s movements in the last 50 years. Focusing on the unresolved emotional pressures of marriage and the family, she looks back on the ’70s and ’80s as a missed opportunity. Instead of bringing about thoroughgoing reform, they wasted their chance, she believes, on an outburst—a moment of “raging intemperateness.” And she tends to align herself now with the heroic figures of the nineteenth century (fictional ones, like Rhoda Nunn and historical ones, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton), rather than with today’s more inclusive feminist movement. In a recent article, she compared third-wave feminists to the “free women” of the 1920s, who had gained a “false sense of agency” in a time of loosened social constraints. About recent books on feminism, she wrote: “I want to cry.”
Feminine solidarity, one powerful antidote to the siren calls of traditional romance, does not feature in this memoir. Gornick no longer writes of the exhilaration she felt for many years “in the loose embrace of feminism.” Gone is the sense of belonging she once described as “a moment of joy, when a sufficiently large number of people are galvanized by a social explanation of how their lives have taken shape. ... Not an I-love-you could touch it.”
On the final page of The Odd Woman and the City, Gornick picks up the phone to call Leonard. Irritation has given way to indifference and then to affection—the pattern of New York friendships. Like Rhoda Nunn, Gornick sacrifices intimacy and community for an independent life. But unlike Rhoda, she’s had the experience of both. Negotiating these modes of living has been the central tension in Gornick’s work, and it forms the other half of this latest attempt to live on her own terms. That’s something worth not giving up on.