On Sara Majka’s ‘Cities I’ve Never Lived In’

A collection of linked stories, threaded by the protagonist’s divorce, that challenge conventional ideas of resolution.

Sara Majka
Fiction | Short Stories
192 pages
5.3'’ x 8'’
Trade Paperback
Also available in eBook formats
Review Format: Print
ISBN 978–1555977313
First Edition
Graywolf Press
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Available HERE

If you’ve ever been involved in a workshop, in either a formal or casual setting, you’ve probably been asked, “What do your characters want?” The question is usually scrawled in the margins of the first few pages, the ink smeared in the critic’s frenzy. There’s a seemingly universal assumption that a successful story requires the protagonist’s desires to be transparent to both herself and the reader. We expect our characters to have a better handle on things than we do ourselves, to know clearly their own motives and which direction to take to enact change in their lives. Despite knowing how rare this is in real life, we seem to demand it in fiction. We have unkind expectations of the people we create.

In Sara Majka’s debut short-story collection, Cities I’ve Never Lived In, the reader is guided through the linked stories by narrator Anne, a recent divorcée, as she travels, connects with lovers, and tells stories that belong to other people. Most of the stories take place in New England, primarily Maine, moving from the mainland to coastal islands as Anne does whatever seems right at the time, spurred on by some unknown pulse inside her. Traversing through Majka’s sleek, minimalist prose, I realized I never once had a goddamn clue what it was that Anne wanted, neither in the short term nor the long term, and I got the feeling that Anne didn’t know, either. It turns out this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a narrative; I felt a little bit like I was reading a mystery story, like I was discovering things at the same time as Anne. As I watched Anne drift between jobs, places, and people, between her reality and someone else’s, the only thing I was certain of was that Anne was lonely. Despite never knowing Anne on any level deeper than surface, her loneliness was a reality with which I could sympathize as a human.

Later on I was in the city, where I stayed in a married couple’s apartment while they traveled. It was a corner apartment filled with light, overlooking a church. […] There were cats who slept with me, and there were stairs to the roof. If you went up just as it was getting dark, the last of the light receded behind the steeple and made it loom as if in a magical way, and I was full of the feeling of being nowhere, or in someone else’s life, or between lives.
(Reverón’s Dolls)

The opening story “Reverón’s Dolls” introduces the reader to the critical event of the collection, Anne’s divorce from Richard, whom she still loves. All the stories in the collection are oriented in respect to the divorce, often referring to whether the stories took place before or after, even if the divorce isn’t explicitly a part of the piece. Richard serves as an anchor, rooting Anne to one reality; when he is gone, she drifts both within her mind and in physical space. In “Reverón’s Dolls,” Anne shows the reader the after, her moments with lovers as well as the brief, cordial meetings with Richard who, since he is dating other women, seems to have moved on from their relationship.

It is in regard to these moments that Anne connects herself with Venezuelan visual artist, Armando Reverón; late in his life, Reverón ensconced himself in a fake reality, a life with dolls, often painting himself with them and spending an inordinate amount of time making objects for them. For Anne, moving aimlessly between places and lovers after her divorce from Richard creates the sensation of living in a fake reality. In trying to cope with the loss of her relationship with Richard, Anne sinks into a life where she lives the lives of others instead of forcing herself to live her own.

When she left, he watched her walking in the thick air, her white blouse lit by the moon, like she was a spectral thing moving away from him. But what good is there in keeping the things you don’t want, simply because they are something?

If I were to tag Cities I’ve Never Lived In with searchable terms like it was a show on Netflix, those keywords would be cerebral, spooky, and surreal. From mysterious drownings to alternate realities, Majka doesn’t shy away from elements that have previously been the territory of genre fiction. In “Boy with Finch,” Majka brings a classic ghost story into literary fiction. She creates a narrative that is both implausible and, paradoxically, totally believable. In the story, Anne details her childhood friendship with a boy named Eli who lived in an apartment above an antique shop; together, they find a secret crawlspace that holds a painting of a boy who looks eerily similar to Eli holding a finch on his finger. As adults, the two reconnect and establish a brief romance. Anne learns about a different crawlspace from Eli and the alternate dimension to which it leads. Eli insists he took the wrong way out of the crawlspace, disrupting the balance of everything. It is a story that is frighteningly sincere, despite the fact that it cannot really exist within our world.

What is most admirable about Anne is her absolute trust in the people she encounters. Because all her relationships are overshadowed by her persisting love for Richard, the reader gets the feeling that Anne is irreparably distant from the people in her life; indeed, even the reader is kept at a distance from Anne, who often seems fluid and without identity. Despite this emotional distance, Anne seeks wholeheartedly to understand and love the people she brushes up against. This is the most evident in the title story, in which Anne travels to cities across the United States, stopping to eat at local soup kitchens and to sleep in hostels. She explains this decision in a throwaway comment, stating that she’s always been interested in soup kitchens; however, as she strays farther and farther from New England, she claims she is beginning to wonder why she ever wanted to take the trip in the first place. On her journey, Anne meets a variety of people, some more lost than even she is. Occasionally, she asks to take photos of these people; other times, she thinks that her genuine desire to connect would be a burden to them. Although this story allows us to get the closest to Anne, to see her vulnerabilities and questions about her own self, it is peculiar in its lack of resolution, and we are left with more questions at the end than we had at the beginning.

He put one hand over his eyes and I sat behind him and placed a hand flat on his back and stayed like that for some time, while rice cooked in our alcove kitchen. I felt a sudden enlarging of space, with sacks of half-put-away groceries on the counter, the sagging bag of rice scattering kernels everywhere, everything acquiring significance, more beautiful than the many beautiful things I had seen, more beautiful even than the harbor had ever seemed to me.
(“White Heart Bar”)

Although the stories often feel disparate, the ever-present shadow of Anne’s divorce works to tie it all together; additionally, the last story serves as kind of braid that weaves all the characters and elements back into one world. Many of the stories are named for the cities in which they take place, and the last story is named “Boston.” Anne operates as a narrator in this meta tale about how she’s trying to find the right way to end a story that was begun prior in the collection, a story about a man who disappears and is never seen by his family again. As she details how she thinks the story ends, she loops in elements from other pieces in the collection: a weekend at a cottage with Richard, a young girl who drowns in the harbor under mysterious circumstances, Anne’s last knowledge of her estranged father. Because she admits to constructing at least part of the story about the disappeared man, the reader begins to question how much of Anne’s narrative is true and if Anne keeps everyone at a distance so we cannot see where she sewed her stories together. This is not a collection about bringing clarity; instead, we leave Anne not knowing if we just spent the past couple hundred pages in the real world or in our protagonist’s own fictions.

Later I decided it was both him and not him. My mother would sometimes bring it up. She wanted me to ask, but since I felt both versions were true, there was nothing to learn from asking him. It was a way to hold something — the memory of him — lightly enough so that all possibilities were true, and to not crush anything by asking if I loved him or not, and, if I loved him, trying to understand why.

Although there are many lines that resonated with me on an emotional level, this collection is much more heady than it is visceral. So many scenes and characters are sketches, more implicit than fully drawn out, and this is purposeful on Majka’s part. It is not a collection of closeness but rather an examination of a character who orchestrates distance and drifts within her own manufactured reality, constructing it out of other people’s lives. It is a distinct, cerebral collection, and I can’t really say I’m sure I really got it. Even after finishing the book and sitting with it quite a long time, I’m still not sure who Anne is or what she wants. But, really, it’s unfair of me to expect her to reveal all her secrets.