When Adam Gopnik's At the Strangers' Gate (2018) isn't irritating and inaccessible in its verbosity, it's highly entertaining and insightful. He mixes into the memoir just enough self-deprecation—as in the bare minimum—to keep his writing from sounding pretentious. Describing himself as "a naturally garrulous stylist," he meanders through and over and around and under all kinds of topics, with a focus on New York City in the 80s, his wife, Martha, the art scene, his journey to becoming a confident, well-known writer and, I suppose, urban pests as well if you consider how frequently cockroaches and rats creep in. (There were little well-organized German cockroaches; and there were the Asian cockroaches as well, busy and enterprising. And there were those enormous American cockroaches, then called water bugs, who resembled wasps displaced from their natural habitat.)
The book must be interesting to different readers in different ways. Anybody who was part of the NYC scene back then wouldn't have to do as much guesswork reading it; knowing the people and places, they'd get a lot more out of it. For me, I read closest the parts where he reflects on becoming a writer for GQ and The New Yorker, and what being a writer means to him (in the epilogue he remarks: "We write in order not to have passed by in vain.") His accounts of the art world were interesting too, and felt as if they'd been thought out deeply by the expert that he is—he seems far more sure of himself on this topic than others, like sex. The parts where he goes on about his relationship with Martha, and their everyday routine, was a bit dull in places. The 80s in New York are commonly portrayed as one giant party, but if it was anything like that, Gopnik must not have been invited. It's sweet, though, his uxoriousness. And the couple worked hard together to get to where they got to, success. Gopnik tells us: "I was writing, and it was all I did, all day long and most of the night." And this at the end of that period is his great achievement, the destination of his ambition. In a review by Craig Taylor in The Guardian, he describes Gopnik's writing as, "sentences [that] build into paragraphs that are architectural feats." And they really are, and are reason enough to read this book, and to be challenged (or befuddled) by it, and unquestionably would improve anyone's crossword performance.
We write in order not to have passed by in vain. We write to offer proof of life, as the G-men say when they demand a photo of the kidnapped holding a newspaper, and as the kidnappers intend when they send an ear or a finger in return. Proof of life is what we traffic in as writers, before we traffic in ideas or even in emotions, even if our body parts get lost or mangled along the way. We like to say that the end of writing is connection, but the starting point is simple affirmation. We have left a trace. The book, shut closed on the tale, but bearing a title and the author’s name on its spine, is consoling in itself. I passed this way, and left this here.
At the Strangers' Gate