April 1, 2018 at 9:00 pm

Lit Fest | ‘Space to Misbehave’: The Work of Mary Gaitskill, April 12, 13

Mary Gaitskill, portrait

Mary Gaitskill

The 2018 Spring Literary Festival welcomes author Mary Gaitskill for a reading on Thursday, April 12, at 8:30 p.m. in Walter Hall Rotunda, and for a lecture on Friday, April 13, at 11:00 a.m. in Alden library.

By Melanie Ritzenthaler
Graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing: Fiction

Formidable is a word that has often been associated with Mary Gaitskill and her writing. Similarly, the words brutal, unflinching, and devastating. Gaitskill’s style is one that cannot be easily mistaken for another’s; whether her work explores sadomasochistic relationships, drug addiction, or the casual cruelty of children and adults, she writes with a glass-edged precision and brainy, vivid prose. What perhaps best differentiates her work is what Parul Sehgal, writing for The New York Times, calls Gaitskill’s tendency to “put her fingers in the wound.” One could say it is this—her ability to probe those sensitive areas that others would avoid—that indelibly remains with her readers.

Gaitskill’s reputation has been earned over four decades of writing, decades that have produced celebrated short stories and novels alike. Since the publication of Bad Behavior in 1988, Gaitskill has written two other collections, including Because They Wanted To, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She has also written three novels, and Veronica, published in 2005, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Most recently, her collection of essays, titled Somebody With a Little Hammer, was released to positive reviews in 2017.

In the course of Gaitskill’s career, her writing has taken on near-mythical literary status. With such success comes the attempt to pin down just what makes her work come alive, to be able to catch hold of it and define it. Sometimes, the power and urgency of a writer’s work can be diluted due to these attempts. Such is the case of the strangely common misconception that Gaitskill’s writing is cold or “unsentimental.” Surely what makes her so formidable, and what makes her work so often devastating, is not the lack, but the excess of sentiment she allows her characters. Her characters can be tender and lonely and cruel, sometimes in just the landscape of a single paragraph, and Gaitskill never attempts to tidy their emotions into neat piles, or to chauffeur them toward easy resolutions.  If anything, she gives her characters space to misbehave, to love and hurt in equal measure.

Gaitskill has an uncanny ability to immediately immerse her reader in the unruly nature of these people. Their emotions and actions may often be insensible and at odds with their best interests, but other writers might reveal this to their reader gradually, a literary sleight of hand. Not Gaitskill. She unveils her characters in quick, immediate ways, undressing their contradictions for the world to see. This is often effectively done through her physical descriptions; in the opening paragraph of “Because They Wanted To,” there is an immediate complexity in how Elise, a young runaway, is constructed:

Although she was moving, she gave an impression of unusual stillness. She seemed hidden, even though she was sitting right there. Her large eyes were receptive and guarded at once. Her features were pretty, but there was something crumpled, almost collapsed, in her. At the same time, she had something that was very erect and watchful, something that didn’t yet show on her face.

As the story progresses, Elise finds a job for the day watching a mother’s three children, although the woman never reappears to relieve Elise of her duties. And so Elise progresses through a sometimes incongruous set of responses toward her young charges as she awaits the woman’s return: a protective tenderness, annoyance, aggression, resentment, regret. Ultimately, she leaves the children, never knowing if the mother will ever come home. In the hands of a lesser writer, perhaps readers would place some kind of judgment on Elise for such behavior—that her decision to leave is wrong, perhaps even sick. In Gaitskill’s fiction, however, we are reminded that just about everyone has such a “sickness,” and although “the best you could do was to cover it up . . . sometimes it would just come boiling out anyway. Then you had to point at it and condemn it, even though you knew you had it too.” Gaitskill does not condemn her characters’ behavior, but she is definitely pointing at it, drawing our eye to it, and demanding that we recognize ourselves, equally flawed and contradictory, in this description.

What is this “sickness” that Gaitskill refers to? In “Because They Wanted To,” it is broadly defined as anything that is “not normal.” In her broader work, however, it is arguably diagnosed as the compulsion for human connection, a yearning that drives her characters into situations that are often ugly, misunderstood, or hurtful. Gaitskill’s characters deliberately seek out this pain. In her novel Veronica, the narrator, Alison, explains that she has gone to New York looking for “life and sex and cruelty.” But of course it is more complicated than that. Alison feels “monstrous wants and gorgeous terrors” that find form in art, those “public dreams bleeding into one another . . . like they might bleed from person to person. I took it in and fed on it, and for a while, that was enough . . . I looked for another hand to find me. I walked the street, searching [men’s] faces for the lips of a spider drinking blood with pure, blank bliss.” In trying to feed our own wants and desires, we are sometimes made vulnerable, and we are sometimes made cruel. Gaitskill’s characters so often exemplify this in how they vacillate between being the ones offering themselves up and the ones who, like the spider, take with an ecstatic bliss.

In her essay “On Not Being a Victim,” Gaitskill describes pain as “an experience that defies codification.” And yet it is pain where she so often centers her focus: physical, emotional, psychological pain. In much of Gaitskill’s work, pain and privation work hand in hand. Her characters’ pain is of the lonely, the deprived, and perhaps it is not surprising that they are so often reduced to animal nature, biological drive, in a world that can seem rigorously ordered and numbly cruel. Their emotions and actions are sometimes clumsy or brutish, as if stemming from people unaccustomed to acting in conventional, humane ways. This can be seen in her short story “The Blanket,” wherein a relationship built on fraught rape fantasies logically veers into destruction. As readers, we question whether a relationship inherently tethered to shame, power, and even fear could result in any other conclusion, despite these characters’ best efforts. And yet, in the final pages, Gaitskill manages to surprise us with their ability to communicate in a tender, almost instinctual, way:  as the man—cold, shivering—sleeps apart from his lover, she “lifts the covers, greeting him with her warmth and smell,” and invites him to join her. And he goes, one heat-seeking human animal to another.

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