Greetings, Story366! Today I’m writing about Sara Majka’s story collection Cities I’ve Never Lived In, out from Graywolf, which contains a lot of pieces about people moving about, trying to find the place where they belong. That’s a pretty common theme in literature, but in at least a couple of stories, these travels are tied to failed romantic relationships, as if the characters aren’t only looking to find something, but are running away from something, almost unfinding it as they try to move on. An interesting combination of themes, really, but is a good fiction writer practice. I regularly tell my students to try to layer their stories on two similar levels, as there’s what’s going on and what the story’s about. From what I can tell of Majka’s work—I’ve read three stories—she follows this pattern very well.
I almost wrote about the story “Miniatures,” about a woman and her close, lifelong relationship to her brother, as it features a miniature house—i.e., dollhouse—early in the piece. Just this past Saturday, while in Kansas City, my family and I visited The National Museum of Toys/Miniatures, which we somewhat surprisingly loved. My boys, 9 and 3, really liked the miniature displays, more than we could have ever predicted, making the choice a slam-dunk success. We saw cool things in that museum, including a whole bunch of tiny houses. The coolest exhibits, however, were the items we had to look at under a microscope, which included figures carved into the tip of a toothpick, landscapes painted onto a pinhead, and a couple of fleas dressed up in really elaborate clothes. The mantra I kept driving home to my boys was that someone made those, that these weren’t machine-produced items. A human being decided they wanted to use their time to not only make things like this, but to develop the skills and techniques to make it possible. Some people are driven to write. Some people are inspired to create jazz. But there’s also some people out there who commit their lives to painting pictures on pinheads. It is a large and varied world.
Instead of writing about “Miniatures,” I’m going to stick with the title story, which includes those themes I mentioned in the first paragraph of this entry. “Cities I’ve Never Lived In” features an unnamed protagonist, a woman leaving NYC to find herself by moving across the Midwest, volunteering in soup kitchens, partly for philanthropy, but also to lighten her expenses: Often, volunteers at kitchens get to eat at the kitchen, and once in a while, snag some leftovers. So our unnamed hero moves from city to city, often by bus, researching where each city’s kitchen can be found, trying her best to do what’s right, but also get some free meals.
For a while, I wondered if the protagonist in this story was just homeless, that the pretense of making this trip to volunteer, to give something back, wasn’t just the ruse of an unreliable narrator. Maybe she just didn’t have anywhere to go. That’s contradicted by the fact that she has a phone, has money to buy bus tickets, and seemingly, if she wanted to, remove herself from the homeless environment and simply return home. I think this is all intentional, Majka wanting us to see just how gray the line is between this person’s charity and the need for some herself, making her a complex character, for sure.
Once in a while, Majka reminds us that this whole trip started out as a method of getting over an ex-lover, whom the protagonist is hoping to hear from. Eventually, she breaks down and calls him herself. The story, the trips, the travel, it all becomes a big, clear metaphor for this woman trying to find something, trying to move on. The trip culminates with a stay in East St. Louis, one of the more indigent and rundown cities in America, and another metaphor is struck: one one side of the Mississippi, there’s this impressive lively city in St. Louis, its arch, baseball stadium, and downtown, and on the other, less than a mile away, its suburban, downtrodden mirror reflection. The protagonist is like that herself. On one hand, it seems like she’s in control, that she could move back to New York at any time, but on the other hand, it seems like she should be getting in line instead of ladling. It’s a delicate balance.
The lead story in All the Cities I’ve Never Lived In, “Reverón’s Dolls,” boasts themes similar to the title story, and in fact, I wondered if the stories weren’t about the same exact person. I don’t think so. I enjoyed the stories in this book, be they connected or not, as Sara Majka presents a cohesive, tight collection. I’m glad to have gotten to this book, one I’ve had on my stack for a while, especially as I’m on the road, looking for something myself.