Gornick’s ‘Attachments,’ Still Fierce

Memoir

By Jonathan Lethem

Published September 02, 2005, issue of September 02, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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:

In the second year of my marriage the rectangular space made its first appearance inside me. I was writing an essay, a piece of graduate-student criticism that had flowered without warning into thought, radiant shapely thought. The sentences began pushing up in me, struggling to get out, each one moving swiftly to add itself to the one that preceded it. I realized suddenly that an image had taken control of me: I saw its shape and its outline clearly. The sentences were trying to fill in the shape. The image was the wholeness of my thought. In that instant I felt myself open wide. My insides cleared out into a rectangle, all clean air and uncluttered space, that began in my forehead and ended in my groin. In the middle of the rectangle only my image, waiting patiently to clarify itself. I experienced a joy then I knew nothing else would ever equal.

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.






Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.