Adam Gopnik is as much a phenomenon, as he is a writer. With The New Yorker magazine as his professional and literary base since 1986, the cultural savant is one of this generation’s most important observers, interpreters and chroniclers of Western society. His books are numerous and varied – fiction, non-fiction, adult and children’s literature. He writes columns prolifically and lectures frequently. He has recently also entered into the realm of co-creating musicals as a lyricist and librettist.
Gopnik has a substantive range as a writer, scholar and lecturer because he has a vast breadth of knowledge. He also has the unique ability to communicate that knowledge through the multi-faceted lens that is his insightful mind.
Gopnik’s abilities have been noticed. He won the National Magazine Award for Essays and for Criticism three times, as well as the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting and the Canadian National Magazine Award Gold Medal for arts writing. In 2013, France awarded him the medal of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. And in 2011, the CBC asked him to deliver the prestigious Massey Lectures to mark the 15th anniversary of that distinguished series.
Gopnik was born in Philadelphia, but was raised and received his formal education, through his undergraduate degree at McGill University, in Montreal. He is the latest prodigy to emerge from Montreal’s unique creative and multicultural environment.
He lives in New York with his wife, filmmaker Martha Parker, and their two children, Luke and Olivia. And that is where his latest work, At the Strangers’ Gate, begins. Gopnik tells of the couple’s departure from Montreal on the eve of their marriage in 1980, when they settled in New York. They were two young adults – with scholarship funding and their mutual affection to sustain them – embarking upon the next personal and professional stages of their lives together, away from the homes and the people that were their formative influences.
There is a semblance of chronological tracking to the book. Most of Gopnik’s observations are of the 1980s, but not exclusively so. We read of the young couple’s beginning in a tiny one-room basement flat in the Upper East Side that Gopnik significantly calls the “Blue Room,” and then of their next lodging in a SoHo loft. Gopnik describes the launch of his career as a copy editor, lecturer and essayist.
True to his celebrated style, his reach is high and far. At the Strangers’ Gate provides a great deal of insight into the then-burgeoning community of artists and the artistic world of SoHo and beyond. As a reflection of his formal educational training, Gopnik writes liberally and knowledgeably about art movements, art themes, art types, art theory, artists and art history.
But he writes about far more than art. Through a richly painted pastiche of diverse vignettes, he creates compelling biographical sketches of famous and non-famous individuals alike. He uses the context of the ’80s to reflect upon social and cultural trends. He uses art as a device to conduct anthropological explorations. He muses about fashion, food, architecture, human nature and every other imaginable aspect of the human condition from the point of view of someone newly arrived in Manhattan.
Indeed, Manhattan is the postcard on which At the Strangers’ Gate is imprinted. Readers familiar with the urban geography of the city will especially delight in the book.
Gopnik is a superb writer. He crafts humorous passages with the equal elegance and touching effect of his more didactic writings. At times, the analysis and conclusions come so frequently and so fast that the reader feels like a passenger in a raft without a rudder that’s speeding along an unstoppable current. There is always time to breathe, but not necessarily time to take in, absorb and appreciate all the scenery along the way.
Gopnik’s language is always precise and definitive. Almost every page yields an aphoristic nugget to examine further for its rich vein of thought and insight.
The book is at its most tender, however, when he writes about his wife, Martha Parker. As Gopnik points out at the outset, she is its “heroine, or anyway distaff-side talker.”
Gopnik introduces her in rapturous terms and writes of her throughout the work in variations of that rapture. The eclectic erudition that is so ubiquitous in the book is impressive. But his all-enveloping love for his wife, the bedrock of his sense of duty and place on earth, is captivating and endearing. Time and again, he pays adoring tribute to her.
After years of living in the loft, he writes: “I am blind to her in the Blue Room years – scarcely a single isolated memory of her eyes or smile or even clothes remains – because we were so close. I could not always separate my eyes from her face.… She now has a canvas to work on, and made our place even more beautiful.… I tease her today, but it’s true that she always spent every penny we both made and we always lived beautifully. We have always been in debt and always in the midst of lovely things. Some day the debts will overwhelm us, but the memory of beauty will, I hope remain.”
Quite tellingly, the very last words of the book, the words Gopnik wishes us to keep first in our minds, are again about his love of Martha: “and there were many mornings when, as in the Blue Room, I couldn’t see her for seeing her, couldn’t tell Martha’s face from my eyes upon it. I hope I never shall.”