Wednesday, June 29, 2011


After reading Mary Gaitskill's amazing "The Other Place" in The New Yorker a while back, I poured through her three short story collections over the spring: Bad Behavior, Because They Wanted To, and Don't Cry. What to say about Gaitskill? I guess she's best known for the way she writes about sex, partly because of the story that was the basis for Secretary. And understandably so. She makes Roth look like a Victorian. (If Katie Rophie had any sense, she'd be raving about what balls Gaitskill has, but of course she doesn't count.) It's not because she's more "explicit," whatever that might mean. Partly it's generational: go back to Goodbye Columbus with the hidden diaphragm that ruins everything and you remember, this is a writer who's always living in the shadow of the newness of the sexual revolution. No matter how old his (male) characters get, you can always hear little Alex Portnoy somewhere in the background: look at what I'm getting away with! Gaitskill, some twenty-one years younger, has her characters simply live in the world that Roth's can't stop proclaiming from the rooftops. It's become somewhat usual to say about this, across the aesthetic and political spectrum, well, now that sexual liberation is taken for granted of course sex has lost its sacredness/meaning/profundity/metaphorical possibilities/aesthetic interest, transcendence. It's such a commonplace we don't think about how odd it is: if more people were to engage in a wider variety of, say, artistic and political activities, would we say, oh, now art or politics has lost its meaning? Perhaps we would. ("If everyone's an artist, no one is, etc."). The logic of scarcity runs deep, and yes, this is saying that sex under capitalism is still thought of primarily as a commodity, but so are all experiences, so we shouldn't dwell on this too much.

In any case, Gaitskill shows how ridiculous all of this is. There's a lot of S&M in her books, which is perhaps an imperfect way of heightening the stakes, of recasting sex as a metaphor. But in any case, it works. Which is the other, deeper way in which she departs from someone like Roth: sex as metaphor works because it's about something besides breaking taboos or trying to cope with aging and mortality. Call it the sublime or just call it the soul, as Gaitskill does in "Mirror Ball."

So I decided to kick off this summer's reading by moving to Gaitskill's novels. I've been thinking a lot about my preference for short stories over the novel, but in Gaitskill's case I also think she may be better suited to the form: the intensity and strangeness she does so well are just that much harder to sustain with a single story and set of characters over a few hundred pages. Reading Gaitskill sometimes feels a little like having sex: not because the writing gets you off, although it might, and you don't get the sense she'd mind. People talk so carelessly about being "transported" by a good story, but most of the time we don't mean it - we mean, oh, a couple hours went by and I didn't notice. But distraction and transportation are not the same. With Gaitskill, you might forget and hour has gone by but probably not three. At a certain point you want to or have to come up for air, and go back to pretending you are this well articulated person in the world, that there is a boundary between you and that world, that you a person with opinions and ideas who just happens to have a body you must tend to now and then.

So I wasn't surprised that I found Gaitskill's first novel, Two Girls, Fat and Thin, less satisfying than the stories. It felt, as so many novels to do me, like a story stretched beyond its size. Two women who seem very different meet by chance: in this case, because one, Dorothy, responds to an ad from the journalist Justine for an interview. We start with their early interactions, are then presented with alternating scenes from their childhoods, and then reconnects them on the way to some kind of climax. What I wasn't quite as prepared for was the strangeness: all of Gaitskill is strange, but here it's less the uncanny perfection achieved in so many of the stories but the strangeness which leaves one perplexed. Let's just say this is probably, thankfully, the only novel whose main themes are S&M and the followers of Ayn Rand. If anyone could pull this off, it would be Gaitskill, but it doesn't quite work. I like the idea of playing with a relationship between women with disparate amounts of power, and the Ayn Rand stuff (she calls her "Anna Granite" and the philosophy "Definitism") is interesting, especially as she manages to show why this would appeal to women, and to people without power more generally. After all, if everything around you already affirms your superiority, you don't need a bullshit philosophy and thousand page novels to confirm it. But we're still left with a story stretched beyond its normal life. And the treatment of Dorothy as "fat girl" - well, it just feels like something a thin girl would write. (Though as a thin person I obviously might be as clueless as anyone about this.) She's trying to do the thing the "Definitists" or whoever have contempt for, to write about someone without power clearly, without sentiment or pity or condescension or cheeriness but still not take you to pure despair - it's just a really hard thing to do. Interestingly the more widely known and praised Veronica seems to work with a similar dynamic between two women - on to this one next.

I also kicked off the summer with the completely strange - in the wonderful, sublime sense of the Gaitskill stories - collections of essays and assorted prose by the poet Eileen Myles, The Importance of Being Iceland. More soon.

No comments:

Post a Comment