Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka

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In Bobbie Ann Mason’s story “Residents and Transients,” a woman deciding whether or not to move from her childhood home describes two populations of cats. Resident cats stay in fixed territories, while transient cats range from location to location, footloose and homeless. Though researchers originally considered transients inferior to residents, they have been shown to display more intelligence and creativity. The crux of the story is, of course, not about cats but about the woman: which one is she?

Sara Majka’s debut collection Cities I’ve Never Lived In is concerned with similar issues of transience. In the first story the narrator says, “I was thinking of what happens when what makes life possible disappears.” This question appears near the end of the story, after we learn a few facts about her: she lives mostly on the East Coast, she’s divorced, and since her separation she has moved from city to city—”as if,” she says, “it were the best solution to a shattered life.”

These interlinked stories—in which a history professor cuts maps out of library books, a boy finds a painting of himself in an otherworldly antique shop, a father brings home a perfect miniature dollhouse, and the mainland disappears from an island—have a common question: What do people do when the thing holding their life together disappears?

In “Miniatures,” we learn the narrator’s father left the family when she was a child. While she waits for his return at her grandfather’s house, her grandfather shows her a book about France, points at an orangerie, and suggests she might one day go there. “I think it was his way of saying what was happening to us—being left there—would only be one event in our life,” the narrator muses. “That life would be many events; this was just one, and going to France to visit an orangerie could be another.”

Our narrator takes her grandfather’s words to heart: she goes to New York, Boston, Portland in Maine, Detroit, Cleveland, San Francisco, Berlin, and Poland. For her, impermanence is an idea that can titillate and inspire the unhappy. A new place can mean a new—perhaps better—life.

But for all that the narrator describes movement as an antidote to unhappiness, Majka’s collection makes us doubt how effective a cure it really is. In the titular story “Cities I’ve Never Lived In,” she travels from one soup kitchen to another, volunteering in Detroit, Chicago, and Memphis, as well as small towns in Iowa and Kansas. “I was glad to be traveling, for the movement it gave me, but I was uncertain how my life would be when I got home… I felt the suspension you feel when you’re fine, but you’re worried it won’t last.” After a seemingly endless series of soup kitchens she says: “They were like the cities—simply the same thing, one after another.”

And of cities she admits: “There weren’t enough cities in the world to make me happy.”

Sara Majka

Sara Majka

For the narrator, each temporary home blurs into the next. Streets, train lines, and restaurants are left unnamed, and there are hardly any descriptions of topography, climate, or season. The stories certainly feel East Coast, with their talk of clams and puddles and coasts, but there is no local flavor. The one constant is the endless whirl between decisions to leave and decisions to stay. And in nearly every story, people end up leaving.

Majka is skilled at these quiet renderings of lonely wandering. She doesn’t portray movement as simple escapism; she examines why movement offers the promise of escape. In “Reverón’s Dolls,” for instance, the narrator stays in a friend’s apartment and muses: “I was full of the feeling of being nowhere, or in someone else’s life, or between lives.” Living momentarily in other places, other people’s homes, we are removed from our own lives. We glimpse other possibilities and fantasize about the future. As the narrator puts it, “There was, as always, the relief of living within a life that wasn’t mine.”

The seductive quality of alternate lives is revealed through the stories’ fascination with reflections. In one story the narrator looks at the reflection of a building in a puddle. She muses on a different life: “Where did the second life go, if not further?” These mirrored lives—reflected, distorted, different, each a different refraction of the last—obsess her.

The best stories in the collection take this question of a second life to a speculative, fantastical extreme. In “Cities I’ve Never Lived In” the narrator, looking for her favorite authors in a bookshop, only finds unknown authors with the same last name. At the cash register she is mistaken for a woman who looks exactly like her. In “Boy With Finch,” Eli finds a double of the antique shop he lives above, with a painting that looks just like him as a boy. The islanders in “Saint Andrew’s Hotel” find that one day, no matter how far out they take the ferry, they can no longer find the mainland, while a boy left behind on the mainland begins seeing doubles of people he knew on the island, including a woman who looks exactly like his mother. But despite the doppelgangers and alternate lives the characters imagine, in the end they are left alone. Majka’s stories show the lure of another life is a temptation that will never be realized.

In their departure from strict realism, these stories are reminiscent of Stuart Dybek’s. They are polished and luminous, beautiful without any excess, like the reflection of a star in a dark ocean. They are melancholy rather than tragic.

As a result, the stories give off a very tired energy. It’s not that the writing or the stories are tired, but that the narrator is. Like in a Kundera novel, the weight of all these lives add up, making for an emotional toll I found hard to take in large doses. I’d read a story or two, then have to put the book down and come back to it later.

In this respect Cities I’ve Never Lived In is too compassionate toward its narrator—it never lets us forget her deep-down loneliness. But in its best moments, the collection is ruthless, depicting “what happens when what makes life possible disappears.” Like a homeless cat that must learn to survive, all we can do is move on.

Angela Qian was born in California and graduated from the University of Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Millions, The Toast, and The Point, and she was the recipient of the 2014 Norman Mailer College Prize for Poetry. More from this author →