Approaching Eye Level

by Vivian Gornick (Beacon Press,1996) Hardcover$18.
By Edie Jarolim

IT MAY BE true, as our sisters were wont to assert in the 1970s, that the personal is political, but feminist memoirs of a type that many of us of the female persuasion find useful are few and far between. There's no shortage of victim confessions, star-fucker recollections, and earth-mother affirmations; however, books by intelligent women exploring everyday lives in a way that brings us to reconsider our own circumstances--think Mary Karr, think Jill Ker Conway --are all too rare. Vivian Gornick's 1988 Fierce Attachments, a sharp look back at the author's relationship with her mother, was a fine example of this genre--as is, in certain ways, its follow up, a slim new volume of essays called Approaching Eye Level.

Perhaps because there is no overriding narrative structure to this book as there was to Fierce Attachments, these seven disparate pieces don't, strictly speaking, constitute a memoir. But they're so firmly grounded in personal experience--rather than just using it as a springboard for meditations on outside topics as, say, Joan Didion's essays do--they would seem to qualify as a variation on the form. And there's a unifying thread that runs through all of them, the same one that, woven into the raw material of autobiography in the earlier book, created an artful pattern. For Gornick, our prime directive is to thoughtfully examine our lives and, as she puts it in the final essay, "On Letter Writing," remain fully expressive.

Gornick has taught creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona every winter semester since 1990; but, like Fierce Attachments, almost all the pieces in the new book are set in or around New York. The only inkling we get of the fact that Gornick has spent a significant part of the last six years at the UA is in the essay titled "At the University: The Murders of the Soul." Some folks around here are likely to find the portrait of the University of the Farwest, one of a number of unsatisfying institutions in which the author finds herself exiled from New York, somewhat familiar. (How close does she actually come to capturing the spirit of our local English department? Inquiring minds want to know.)

Still, you don't have to live in a place that has an active street life to connect with Gornick's celebration of it in the book's opening essay; although they may take a different form and occur with less frequency, chance encounters that feed the spirit can be found everywhere. In "On the Street," as in many places in the volume, Gornick's smart sentences are a pleasure: "The pavements of New York are filled with people escaping the prison sentence of personal history into the promise of an open destiny." My favorite piece, though, is "Tribute," which appeared last year in The New Yorker. This extended portrait of a writer who never lived up to her potential has a dynamite payoff when the narrator finally recognizes her real connection with this woman's life and work--as opposed to the one she'd long imagined.

For me, however, this book has been hoisted on its own pen. Approaching Eye Level has indeed succeeded in making me think about my own life--and I'm thinking it's changed a lot since the days when I was living in Manhattan and reading Fierce Attachments. This new book finds me five years away from the city, my ever-precious spawning ground, and recovering from my own advanced case of New Yorkcentricity. I'm struck now by the provincialism and, occasionally, the presumption of some of the author's assertions.

I have in mind particularly the essay "On Living Alone." Not only does Gornick herself find no great joy in self-sufficiency, but she envelops all singles in her gloom, describing "those of us who live alone" as "treading water; waiting for a pardon." She sums up, "Out there in America our faces are withdrawn and remote, made eccentric by isolation. On Columbus Avenue collective loneliness is a stable element. It has culture-making properties." What rot. Some of us feminists out here in America are eagerly seeking a bit of solitude, looking to places like this desert to escape some of the social static--not to mention the Columbus Avenue-style neuroses--that so often interferes with the life of the mind.

Of course it's unrealistic to expect my experiences outside New York should parallel those of the author. Nevertheless, after reading this book, I felt a good part of my life had been erased somehow. Let's grant Gornick her beat; she covers it well. (Who would argue that Proust should have gotten out more, done a little step aerobics?) But this book is perhaps better read in a small, dark apartment than in a place where it's possible to look up from the page and gaze out into the middle distance. TW

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