Approaching Eye Level

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Dear book designers – do not sacrifice function for form. Page numbers that are designed to be cut off midway, and that float either at the top of the page or the bottom depending on your whim are not useful. Aside from that, Vivian Gornick’s 1996 collection of essays is a gem. She begins with an exposition on the streets of NYC, what she witnesses and participates in. Vignettes of neighbors, street vendors, people walking across the street or simply lying in it, flailing. She eats frozen yogurt on a hot day, is accosted by someone who thinks she’s someone else, they devolve into a one-sided conversation that ends with him saying she’s like a psychiatrist because she listens to him. The bus encounter between two old ladies, one of whom is sitting and taking up 2 seats with her packages, the other of whom wants to sit, a Gertrude Stein-type, asks the woman nicely if she can sit down. The seated woman nods and slowly (too slowly) begins to move her things. Two blocks later nothing has changed. Gertrude Stein softly says, “We ain’t none of us getting any younger, lady. Move the fucking packages.”

The second essay remembers waitressing in the Catskills, all the young kids rooming together and working together, kicking back tips up the chain, witnessing the power of money during the chow mein incident where Gornick opts to skip delivering that course in the chaos of the New Years Eve meal and gets fired on the spot when the rich blonde complains that they didn’t get the chow mein. “For the first time I understood something about power. I stared into the degraded face of the headwaiter and saw that he was as trapped as I, caught up in a working life that required someone’s humiliation at all times.”

The next essay details how she got into feminism in the heady days of the Second Wave:

That is a moment of joy, when a sufficiently large number of people are galvanized by a social explanation of how their lives have taken shape and are gathered together in the same place at the same time, speaking the same language, making the same analysis, meeting again and again in New York restaurants, lecture halls, and apartments for the pleasure of elaborating the insight and repeating the analysis. IT is the joy of revolutionary politics, and it was ours. To be a feminist in the early seventies – bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. Not an I-love-you in the world could touch it. There was no other place to be, except with each other. We lived then, all of us, inside the loose embrace of feminism. I thought I would spend the rest of my life there…

Then the unthinkable happened. Slowly, around 1980, feminist solidarity began to unravel. As the world had failed to change sufficiently to reflect our efforts, that which had separated all women before began to reassert itself now in us. The sense of connection began to erode. More and more we seemed to have less and less to say to one another. Personalities began to jar, conversations to bore, ideas to repeat themselves. Meetings became tiresome, parties less inviting.

The fourth essay is a tribute to Rhoda Munk, of whom I have never heard and the internet has no record of – is this Gornick changing names to protect the not-so-innocent? “Munk” apparently wrote a magnificent book, Woman and Authority (no record of it either, doesn’t exist), “the book had some like lightning: a flash of excitement and danger that lit up the interior landscape. It was the kind of writing that left you staring off into space with the book lying in your lap long after the last page had been turned… The writer had used the daily experience of an ordinary woman to tell the story of authority and the human race.” Must find this book. Anyway, Gornick reviews the book for the NYT and later meets Munk at a party. They become friends, they share a beach cottage one summer where the stream of Munk’s invited guests began to depress Gornick: “a stream that never ebbed, never flagged, never slowed down or dried up. They came in twos and threes, ones and fours. They were young they were old; they were women and men; white, brown, yellow; they were students neighbors cousins; acquaintances of a moment, friends of a lifetime…” She never writes a follow up book.

Friendship is dissected in the fifth essay, what life is like as a visiting professor to all the little university towns around the country with their cliques and rules and mannerisms. She meets like-minded people and loves them, “I am hungry for the sentence structure in their heads.” But in each case, she could not hold onto the friendship.

In friendship as in love peace is required as well as excitement. Unless both are present, the graft does not take. Connection remains a matter of the unreliable moment. Without steady connection the friendship has no future. In New York anything without future is instantly flung back into the distracting surge.

The final two essays dip into living alone and letter writing, two of my favorite activities. Obviously, this collection was tailor-made for me. Feminism, street observation, picking apart and being obsessed with the idea of friendship, letters, living alone. Looking forward to reading Gornick’s latest collection of essays as soon as I can wrangle a copy.