There is something deceptively simple about Sarah Majka’s new collection of short stories, Cities I’ve Never Lived In. These are stories about memory, many of which take place in or around Portland, and they are stories written with a clarity that sometimes borders on the austere. But just as casual prose tends to be highly crafted and a discursive style is actually very stylized, memory, for Majka, quickly becomes far more complex than something that functions as a simple depository for our past experiences. To whom do our memories belong, exactly? How do we piece our own past together? And is memory a series of events, or is it a collection of stories that, paradoxically, become more distant from the events we try to remember the more times we recount our memories? The narrator of “Travelers,” an eerie story about a child who goes missing, a pastor with a poor memory, and a narrator with a faltering marriage, responds to these questions with disconcerting exactness: “All my memories were remembered memories.”
So what are we to make of this notion? Where do we locate ourselves within our dislocated memories? Rather than provide any conclusive answers, the loosely linked stories in this collection that are, at times, vaguely novelistic in form, gather meaning around this ambiguity and the idea that, from the vantage of the present, our memories will always be just out of reach, like cities where we once lived but now fail to recall accurately.
In “Boy with Finch,” for instance, one of the earlier stories in this collection, the first person narrator—the majority of these stories are told in memoir narration by a nameless narrator—recalls her adolescence in Jonesport, a small, coastal town in northern Maine. One of the narrator’s only friends during this period was a boy named Eli Cotter, who lived with his mother and sister in “a two-story brick building with a view of the harbor. It had an antique shop downstairs and an apartment above it.” The house’s position above an antique store already intimates a complicated relationship between past and present, a relationship that comes into sharper focus when Eli finds a painting of a boy that resembles himself in one of the attic spaces, but can’t figure out where it came from.
Years later, Eli moves away, the narrator goes to college, moves to Portland, and the two lose contact. Yet, the narrator, out of nostalgia perhaps, returns to visit the apartment one last time. Eli’s mom is gracious and lets her explore it freely. Houses, without fail, lend themselves to metaphors, albeit sometimes clichéd ones, and as the narrator canvases the rooms of her adolescence, the story drifts into trite territory. But it becomes more complex and interesting when the narrator decides to look for the painting of Eli. She ventures into the attic, but doesn’t find the painting. Later, however, in the antique shop, which is still open, she finds a painting that resembles her as a girl. After noting the brown eyes, not unlike her own, the narrator “sat on the floor near the painting, feeling close and knowing I wouldn’t get any closer.” Of course, memories cannot be literally relived. Yet, the distance the narrator feels in this moment traverses something larger. The painting invokes a former self, but it does so by representation, suggesting that the proximity of our own past is always mediated by further representation. We are never able to access our memories themselves, only representations that call to mind those memories.
The narrator and Eli meet again in Portland, and for a brief period have a relationship. The first night they have sex, the narrator reflects, “After so many years of waiting you wouldn’t think I would have noticed so much about the ceiling…” Obviously, the encounter wasn’t what the narrator expected. But what is compelling about this moment is the way it enacts the fragility of trying encounter the past in the physical presence of someone with whom it has been shared. People inevitably change and become misrepresentations of what we thought we remembered. So it goes with much of what we rely on to recall the past. The problem representation poses for our memories is here given dramatic form. If Majka’s stories ever start to feel turgid, it’s because they often read as highly allegorized, yet it’s in these moments of human drama—the return of the past in a fleeting relationship—that these allegorized themes of memory take on compelling feeling.
Majka also complicates the idea of the past by exploring ways in which it informs our present experiences. In “The Museum Assistant,” for instance, the narrator works in a museum full of “…mummies, pottery and miscellaneous art.” Again, the story’s setting already invokes something of the idea that the past as a relic that informs the present. This is dramatized nicely when a man at the museum reminds the narrator of her father. She follows him and eventually asks what he thinks of the collection. The man tells the narrator that he had, in fact, “once worked for the museum, and had been in charge of raising funds for its construction.”
As the man talks, he begins to remind the narrator less and less of her father, yet she is left with an important insight: “…but I was struck by this, that a man who reminded me of my father had turned out to be the man who’d created the building where I had sat for so many hours.” Certainly, this is a telling analogy for many of the stories in this collection: We build our present from the remains of our past. In this sense, we are always misrecognizing the people in our current lives as shadows of those from our past. The flip side of this are the numerous moments in these stories where other characters misrecognize the narrator. In these instances the narrator becomes a shadow that belongs to the past of others. In both cases, it throws the possibility of real connection into question.
Thus the collection’s parallel theme running congruent to that of memory: The constant tension, always lurking in the background but often coming to the fore, of failed relationships and the evanescent quality of love. If memories are constitutive of our present experiences but our memories are inaccessible to us, we are, in a way, always kept at a distance from ourselves. Perhaps this is part of the reason the narrators of these stories often remain nameless. Perhaps what is being negotiated in these stories is nothing less than the fact that how we understand our past is also how we name and understand ourselves in the present moment. It’s on this fraught terrain that these stories, at their best, investigate the possibility of real connection with others. Sometimes the stories move a little slowly, losing track of this tension, but often Majka renders this conflict with startling insight and human drama.
As a reader who lives in Maine, I was left wondering about the significance of geography in the book. The narrator of “Boy with Finch,” speculating about why Eli’s mom chose Maine, says “I don’t know why she picked Maine; all her family lived down south. My guess was that she left for the farthest place she could think of.” There is a strange paradox here, and I think it says something about Maine’s place in the imagination. Sometimes it seems the only way to find ourselves is to get away from everything and everyone who reminds us of who we are. Maybe it’s an attempt to free ourselves from the misrepresentations of our own memory. Maybe this is part of what Maine represents. The irony, of course, is that it’s likely another misrepresentation. If I had to guess, I’d say this irony isn’t lost on Majka.
Cities I’ve Never Lived In, by Sarah Majka, Graywolf Press, 2016