This month, Farrar, Straus and Giroux will republish “Fierce Attachments.” Vivian Gornick’s 1987 memoir. Couldn’t I just say that you must read it? That I am here to insist this book become a banner in the wide world, as it is a banner already in my mind, one I march behind? Gornick’s memoir has that mad, brilliant, absolute quality that tends to loft a book out of context, then cause it to be admired, rightly, as “timeless” and “classic.” Yet it is a memoir centered, at least apparently, on the intricacies of a mother-daughter relationship, a memoir written in the 1980’s (before the memoir boom), by a writer associated, proudly if unsimply, with the feminist movement. Is it mine to love, then — let alone to brandish as a piece of my own heart? Yes. The reader’s path into the entrancement of “Fierce Attachments” is neither by way of gawking curiosity about the specifics of Gornick’s or her mother’s life, nor by the easy identification that depends on resemblance — on overlapping circumstances — not even the resemblance of femaleness.
Identification, in “Fierce Attachments,” works another way. Immersing ourselves in the book’s searing yet seemingly offhand honesty, we find that we simply become Vivian Gornick (or the speaker bearing her name), just as we become her mother, and then Nettie Levine, the passionate and nihilistic young neighbor who emerges as the book’s third major character, forming with mother and daughter what Richard Howard has called “that affective, erotic plot by which, just so, we triangulate our lives.”
Yet our sense of transubstantiation isn’t limited to these three. Gornick draws us into brief, scalding alliances with three men, lovers and husbands along the path of her self-uncovering: Stephan, Davey and Joe. And too, passingly, with a half-dozen other neighbors in the Bronx, and a psychiatrist, and of course the elusive father. By giving every actor in turn eyes with which to see the narrator who has seen them, and voices to rival the narrator’s in acuity, however briefly, Gornick has burned these figures onto the page. Not only does no one escape her gaze, but she escapes no one else’s. I’m not speaking of fairness, an overrated virtue in literature, and perhaps in life as well. Gornick might be said to demolish her cast of players, but by that standard she also demolishes herself. I prefer to say that like a magician pulling the tablecloth from under a table full of settings, she miraculously leaves herself and her cast intact, and shining with what I suppose can only be described as love. Tough love; that’s what they call it.
Gornick is the memoirist and essayist who along with Phillip Lopate and Geoff Dyer taught me whatever I know about flaying the bullshit from sentences about myself. I hate to saddle her with the epithet “writer’s writer,” but “Fierce Attachments” demands honor as the work of a breathtaking technician, one whose control of a distilled form of scene and dialogue, of withheld punch lines, and of the use of the white spaces on the page makes me still wonder why she has never tackled fiction, the love of which she so eloquently professes in her critical essays. Like much of the writing I love most, “Fierce Attachments” draws strength from the method of paradox. These pages contain my favorite description of a would-be writer’s realization that she simply is a writer, for better or worse and no matter how unclear the path before her:
Later in the book, Gornick seems to mourn the inability of this rectangle to thrive, expand, encompass more of her life. The paradox is double: By the evidence of this book, the very book that describes this resistance and frustration, Gornick’s rectangle has done precisely that, grown to encompass not only her life, but, for the duration of the book, her reader’s. And yet for all it encompasses, it remains exactly as intimate and local as her first description of its appearance: exactly the size of her body.
Jonathan Lethem’s novels include “The Fortress of Solitude” and “Motherless Brooklyn,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is also the author of “Men and Cartoons,” a collection of short stories, and “The Disappointment Artist,” a book of essays. This essay is adapted from his introduction to the new edition of “Fierce Attachments.” He lives in Brooklyn.