Mary Gaitskill: a reckoning

The world is beginning to catch up with Mary Gaitskill. In the UK, there has been renewed interest following Serpent’s Tail’s 2019 publication of her 15,000 word New Yorker story, ‘This is Pleasure’, as a slim standalone volume last year,[1] followed in 2020 by the publication of her Granta essay ‘Lost Cat’ in an equally slim volume of 90 generously leaded pages.

The raft of single-sitting books published in recent years gives one answer to how publishers can react to a cultural pace set online, when full-length works take years to gestate. It is also an opportunity to engage readers who might be intimidated by longer books, and who might not read literary magazines. The question is always whether these works benefit from standing alone and speaking to an audience beyond the rarefied literary scenes sustained by capital cities. Undoubtedly both This is Pleasure and Lost Cat do, not because Gaitskill has been writing her way towards popular culture but because popular culture has finally begun to reckon with her themes.

Born in Kentucky in 1954, Gaitskill ran away from home in her teens after her parents discovered she had smoked marijuana and tried to have her committed to a psychiatric institution. In Detroit, at sixteen, she was given acid by her roommate’s older friend and raped, a traumatic experience the significance of which, she later wrote, took her years to understand. At eighteen, she made for San Francisco, where she sold flowers to make ends meet, and then at twenty-one moved to New York to write, paying her bills by working at a strip bar. Her first collection of stories, Bad Behaviour, published in 1988 (and re-issued in 2018 as a Penguin Modern Classic), explored drugs, sex and power games. The best known story, ‘Secretary’, is a melancholy confusion of adolescent shame and desire – later adapted into a kinky, winky film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal (which Gaitskill called ‘the Pretty Woman version’). Popular attempts at imitation haven’t quite lived up to the original. Those who rolled their eyes at Fifty Shades of Grey’s moody and ‘troubled’ Christian Grey might recognise the traces of a rather more sharply drawn E. Edward Grey in Secretary. And it is perhaps Gaitskill’s influence we have to thank for the questionable sadomasochism subplot in Sally Rooney’s Normal People.

‘Lost Cat’ was published in the US as part of the 2017 essay collection, Somebody with a Little Hammer, which also includes her astonishing 1994 Harper’s essay about rape, ‘On Not Being a Victim’, which explores the ambiguity and complexity of consent, and is withering about stories that ‘are supposed to function as instruction manuals’. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, society at large has begun to reckon with consent through powerful non-fiction like Know My Name by Chanel Miller, as well as stories like ‘Cat Person’ by Kristen Roupenian and novels like My Absolute Darling, My Dark Vanessa or Trust Exercise. But this has been Gaitskill’s territory for some time, and her writing on the subject remains peerless.

This is Pleasure is narrated alternately by M. (Margot Berland) and Q. (Quin M. Saunders) – there is a hint at the Mary in both, though neither clearly represents the author’s views. The two middle aged friends have known each other for years and the story of their friendship is related in the years ‘before’ – before, we are given to understand, Quin was fired for being sexually inappropriate. Margot knows what he is capable of – on their third meeting, at a bar, he tried to reach between her legs. She told him to stop, forcefully, and he did. It is an early signal that the reader won’t be permitted the moral comfort of an irredeemable monster, and indeed Quin’s duality is striking. He is shown to be genuinely funny, and genuinely caring, and part of his acknowledged charisma relies on conspiratorial boundary-pushing – that challenging of taboo that many, in the sixties and seventies, saw as an untrammelled virtue. He offers one colleague a light spanking for being late to lunch; on meeting a stranger at a party, he asks her to bite his thumb.

Quin seems to feel that accusations of lasting emotional distress have been blown out of proportion, that his outrageous, camp performance of sexuality relied on mutuality – he would push boundaries as a way of ‘asking, inviting: Can you play, do you play?’. This is Pleasure is unusual for its lack of eagerness to arrive at judgment and, in doing so, lay a difficult subject to rest. And yet: why are the subjects of his interest always women? Why does their relationship rely on his positioning himself as the arbiter of their self-esteem? If it’s all a game, why is he the only one who can decide whether they play? Margot doesn’t believe Quin’s life should be ruined and sees that his actions were maybe ‘offensive’ rather than ‘hurtful’, but she is also angry at him, and has a right to be angry.

Gaitskill’s prose is sometimes described as cold or clinical, but those tonal descriptors give a false impression that the subject isn’t deeply felt. It would be better to say that preciseness is her way of caring, and part of what is beguiling about Gaitskill’s writing is the way she matches this direct style to piercing emotional acuity.

It is difficult to talk about feelings, perhaps harder than ideas, because so often our language is inadequate to the task of expressing what life really feels like: we are caught between clichés of physiology (hearts beating fast, stomachs flipping) and the blandness of abstraction (grieving, pining). But Gaitskill has a talent for the unexpectedly perfect adjective, and metaphors that feel more like a flourish than a last resort. A lesser writer could conclude that panic feels like falling through a trapdoor, but Gaitskill has her subject falling ‘into scalding chaos, clutching at supports that came off in my hands, plunging, and transforming, as I did, into a mindless thing, a receptacle of fear and pain’.

Aside from her style, part of what feels radical about both books is the tacit permission they offer to feel or not to feel – to be honest about your own affect, when others are insisting that other reactions are more appropriate. Writers are habitually praised as ‘honest’ in the way that toast is buttered, but emotional honesty that upsets norms, rather than enforcing them, is costly and risky.

A case in point: is it unseemly to compare the loss of a cat to the loss of a parent? There is something dangerous, destabilizing, about asking the question. The essay Lost Cat takes in the offered subject, an adopted stray cat called Gattino, and Gaitskill’s increasingly outlandish attempts to search for it as the days and months tick by. This leads, by emotional association, to contemplating the loss of her father and of a quasi-maternal relationship she developed with two inner-city kids, Caesar and Natalia, through a charity.

Across the essay, we feel the necessity of the seemingly irrational. (‘“Mio Gattino,” [sic] I whispered, in a language I don’t speak to a creature who didn’t understand words.’) This irrationality is at the heart of love. ‘Human love is grossly flawed, and even when it isn’t, people routinely misunderstand it, reject it, use it or manipulate it. It is hard to protect a person you love from pain, because people often choose pain; I am a person who often chooses pain.’

Here again, we are asked to make peace with duality. Caesar is no angel, but ‘cruelty can sometimes be so closely wound in with sensitivity and gentleness that it is hard to know which is what’. At times he is half-coherent in the way that all children are, at others ‘suddenly very mature’. And Gaitskill knows that speaking to her lost cat in her mind won’t change anything, but she can’t help doing it anyway. Feelings create their own reality, especially when the ‘known, visible order of things’ becomes unacceptable.

Lost Cat is a wise, heartbreaking book, so filled with love and pain that it is hard to understand how so much of the mystery of life can be condensed into such a short space. Gaitskill leaves you wondering at how often our crude attempts at communicating our need for love misfire, or meet with rejection (or offence). Everything depends on our accepting that human relations are too complex to submit to simple codes; that instead, we can only try to be careful and responsible with one another’s tender hearts; that love is not simply the solution to pain, and loss does not eradicate what came before.

This article was originally published in the Brixton Review of Books.

[1] Statement of interest: Serpent’s Tail published my two novels.

Whining into the void

This year, Faber is reissuing five novels by Thomas Bernhard, who rose to fame as a thorn in the side of the Austrian establishment, though he comes down to us as “Austria’s finest postwar writer”, in the words of Gabriel Josipovici. The first two of these reissues, Concrete (1982) and Extinction (1986), were released in March, with beautiful abstract watercolour covers by Leanne Shapton. The latter, with its exponential curve, looks as if it might represent a Malthusian catastrophe, or perhaps, with its meaty pinkness shading into green, a sliver of prosciutto on the turn; the former is a diffusion of blue paint, its almost iridescent quality promising something rather more colourful than concrete.

The two books come with afterwords by Geoff Dyer and Michael Hofmann respectively, as well as starry-eyed endorsements including the New York Times’s claim that Bernhard’s novels are “the most significant literary achievement since WWII”. And yet even his fans are quick to issue caveats. John Updike commented on the “hostility” of Bernhard’s walls of unparagraphed text; Dyer calls his work “fundamentally unapproachable” but finds that readers nonetheless end up dragged out to sea in “the implacable riptide of Bernhardian woe”. Hofmann writes that you can’t really prepare for “Bernhard’s machined vehemence, though once you’ve read one, you perhaps start to crave the bitter taste and the savage not-quite-humour”.

It is impossible to understand the Bernhardian landscape without knowing something of his life. Born in Amsterdam to a single mother, he was moved at a young age to Salzburg, where he was placed in a Nazi home for boys. After the war, the home rebranded itself as a Roman Catholic institution. “Fundamentally”, Bernhard writes in his memoir, Gathering Evidence, “there was no difference between the National Socialist System and the Catholic system. Everything simply had a different veneer and a different name, but in the end the effect was the same.” He had ambitions to be a singer, but he caught a lung infection while unloading potatoes from a cart in the snow at the age of seventeen, and never fully recovered.

And so Bernhard’s narrators are about as happy-go-lucky as Arthur Schopenhauer; indeed, a character from his second novel, Gargoyles, actually eats pages from The World as Will and Representation. They excoriate Austria for its collaborationism and refuse to take part in society. They also declare that they must be heard even when they aren’t sure what to say. They find themselves lost in the petty shallows of everyday consciousness. They are the nephews of Franz Kafka and Knut Hamsun, the grandchildren of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, with whom there are many parallels. Liberated from work by an inheritance, the archetypal Bernhardian narrator makes an art of his own idleness; rather than draw one sure line, he sketches over the same point repeatedly; he turns out aphorisms as provocations; he blames others for his own inability to foster relationships.

Concrete, the shorter and earlier of the two novels reissued this spring, charts the narrator Rudolf’s procrastinations as he prepares to begin writing a book about “Mendelssohn Bartholdy”. Almost everyone remarks on the musicality of Bernhard’s style: he deals in the subtle weaving of phrases and motifs and repetitions (though it’s worth saying that there’s little to be gained by studying his superstructures). Never, for example, do we hear the German composer referred to as “Felix Mendelssohn”, nor as “Mendelssohn” – only ever “Mendelssohn Bartholdy”. The phrase, repeated over and over, begins to take on the power of an incantation.

Paralysed by his aspirations and the weight of his research, Rudolf vituperates his sister for preventing him from beginning, but, having decided to get away from the family home to write in Mallorca, realizes that he can’t write there, either. The most fruitful of these procrastinations turns out to be Concrete itself. It is a novel of yearning, of distraction, of falling short. We learn that Rudolf is stuck after ten years on the first sentence, just like Joseph Grand in Albert Camus’s novel The Plague – and little wonder, since the first sentence of Rudolf’s notes is a twelve-line knot of clauses and qualifications.

If the Rudolf of the earlier novel sometimes has a fogeyish bluster, Franz Josef Murau, the narrator of Bernhard’s last novel, Extinction, is a pure-bred misanthrope. Condescending, supercilious, misogynistic, hypocritical, this Ancient Mariner won’t let you go until he has told you everything he can’t stand about his childhood. He berates Austria for its enthusiastic embrace of Nazism and Catholicism, but he sees no problem with living in Rome; he says he is an intellectual but all he does is bitch and gossip. He detests the tasteless, the depraved, the petit-bourgeois, architects, builders, doctors, the obese, animals and writers, especially those who write what he calls “binder literature”: the literature of bureaucrats.

The novel begins with a telegram informing Murau of the death of his parents and brother, leaving him, the prodigal son, as heir of the family estate at Wolfsegg. In the book’s extended metaphor, Wolfsegg is Austria; Murau’s childhood playroom there, the site of his fondest memories, was squatted by Nazis during the war; and the estate’s huntsmen stand in for the country’s military. For half the novel, Murau sits looking at three photographs – of his parents, of his sisters, and of his brother – turning over the reasons why he dislikes them. In the second half, he goes back to Wolfsegg to dislike the surviving sisters in person and to take possession of the estate.

Murau is not likeable; he’s barely bearable. There is something adolescent about his invocation of the intelligentsia (Wolfsegg doesn’t just have a library, it has five) and his name-dropping of famous hotels. The biggest problem is his relative lack of irony compared to a narrator like Rudolf, whose bile is offset by his sheepish awareness of his own weakness and anxiety, his concession that his sister wants what is best for him, his occasional admission of fault. Rudolf is his own worst enemy, where Murau is simply cruel and unreasonable. George Steiner wrote that “too often, notably in his later writings, Bernhard succumbed to a monotone of hate”, and Extinction has all the tonal variation of a fridge. Or to put it more politely, this may not be entry-level Bernhard.

That said, there is something strikingly modern, even prescient, about the targets of Bernhard’s trollish excess. Take Rudolf’s excoriation of dogs and dog owners in Concrete, for instance: “I’ve always hated dogs. . . . Those with the very basest of souls keep dogs, allowing themselves to be tyrannized and finally ruined by their dogs. . . . The masses are in favour of dogs because in their heart of hearts they are not prepared to incur the strenuous effort of being alone with themselves, an effort which in fact calls for greatness of soul”. Or Murau’s apoplexy over photography: “Everybody wants to appear happy, never unhappy, to project a falsified image, never a true image of the unhappy person he is. . . . It never strikes them how appallingly they compromise themselves”. He later clarifies that since the invention of photography “the mental condition of the human race has been in permanent decline”. It seems fair to assume that he would have judged the Europe of 2019 extremely cursed.

I suspect much else is forgiven if you find him funny. Dyer claims Bernhard has written “the funniest passage in the whole of literature”, though perhaps Murau has taught him to exaggerate (“I’ve cultivated the art of exaggeration to such a pitch that I can call myself the greatest exponent of the art that I know of”). The humour of distortion to absurdity or grotesque is funny if you don’t secretly suspect that he means it. But as Bernhard put it in an interview in 1981, “I need not invent anything. Reality is far worse”. By his last novel, Bernhard appears animated by the sincere belief that there is no future, and the world he paints is fundamentally hostile and degenerate. “The only advice I can offer to any thinking person is to kill himself before the millennium. . . . That’s my genuine conviction”, offers Murau towards the end of Extinction. Thomas Bernhard died by assisted suicide in 1989, after years of deteriorating health; the rest of us had the stupidity to outlive him.


This review was first published in the Autumn 2019 issue of the Brixton Review of Books. You can get four issues for £10 here.

On Chris Power’s Mothers

Chris Power’s first collection of short stories, MOTHERS, is peopled by the restless – forever walking, running, travelling, holidaying, city-hopping, doing anything not to stand still. They are displaced, impulsive, sometimes desperate. The narrator of one story summarises it as ‘the lightness of being far from home, the pleasure and terror of being free to do as I liked.’ It carries the logic, though decidedly not the tone, of picaresque: travellers, like orphans, are liberated to situate themselves from scratch, living without ready-made definitions.

This is certainly true of the three linked ‘Mother’ stories that structure the collection, which concern Eva: first remembering her childhood in Sweden; then travelling along the Costa Blanca; finally married with a daughter of her own. She leads an unhappy life in the shadow of her parents’ death, and travel becomes a way of outrunning her problems, though even here she is following her own mother around Europe, carrying around her guidebook and allowing it to fall open at spine-cracked pages, as if consulting the mother’s spirit. ‘It seemed to help if I kept moving,’ she confesses finally. ‘Whenever I stopped moving everything became… too much.’

Young Eva, in ‘Summer 1976’, reads food into everything: stacks of LPs are liquorice, the air stands thick as jam or greasy with a coming storm. On a dare, the boy who lives next door throws an apple into one of the windows of their apartment block, where it bursts against the wall. (But does she have to be Eva, and does it have to be an apple, so that the story drags around with it the creaking weight of the Biblical malum malum?) Later, after her mother’s death, her taste for life seems to dull. She inherits her mother’s mute desperation; boys are now men, but they embody the same tension between threat and attraction. Later still, tethered to a marriage and a daughter of her own, she loses all energy: stuck in one place, with no water running over her gills, she is reduced, depressed and couch bound.

Listless and withholding, Eva is an unusual character to give the limelight, but in many respects she occupies the thematic heart of the book, caught as she is between the need for love and the compulsion to slip her bonds. MOTHERS begins and ends in Sweden, perhaps the only true centre of gravity for this cosmopolitan crowd of stories. There is also the force of the unspoken, particularly between parent and child: ‘It seemed wrong to ask Mum what she had been thinking about when she was sitting on my bed,’ Eva recalls. ‘It felt like something that would lose its power if we spoke about it.’ In narrative, of course, information does not want to be free, and this ambiguity is what drives all these stories so craftily – partial information, subjective impression, the effort of reading others.

The actions of both men and women are hard to explain away, though they almost always fall short of a partner’s expectations. The men can be slow to know themselves, sometimes drinking as a cover for impulse or physically imposing themselves on their surroundings, whereas the women quietly follow their own path, quietly not saying what they mean. Close relationships, whether familial or romantic, constantly challenge characters’ volition – if travel represents pure freedom, love seems to narrow down one’s options. But without it, there is only the brutal indifference of the wider universe. At the end of a long night, rejected by a lover, a young man watches ‘dawn destroy the stars’.

Power writes arrestingly, particularly about nature, as when a character lies down on the grass and watches ‘leaves divide the sky into shifting fractions of blue’, the phrase simultaneously poetic and precise, with its wonderful rolling rhythm bearing the computational language of division, shifting, fractions. MOTHERS is also brilliantly controlled (for any collection of stories, let alone a first collection). Perhaps this should not be surprising, since Power has been interrogating the form for over a decade – his ‘Brief survey of the short story’ series in THE GUARDIAN has long outgrown its name, numbering 72 articles at the time of writing. On this score, it is tempting to attempt genetic criticism. When Power was writing ‘The Hävang Dolmen’, for instance, with its insensible screaming youth and its coffin-like dolmen, was he thinking of his entry on Franz Kafka, where he wrote about the ‘complex meshing of everyday reality and nightmare… and a world that looks like the one inhabited by you and me, but in which the inner turmoil of the psyche is on the loose’? Is it significant that his first profile was of Anton Chekhov, ‘the author laureate of not knowing’?

Eva once quotes her therapist to the effect that ‘all stories, whatever they’re about, are about you anyway’, and we do find self-conscious elements in a few stories. Any reader reserves the right to skip over paragraphs in which a character gets writer’s block, as in ‘Above the Wedding’, but it is put to better use in ‘Johnny Kingdom’, whose main character is a comedian condemned to stag parties performing another, more famous comedian’s routine (‘He rejects “impersonator”, and resists “tribute act”, although he knows it comes closest’).

Perhaps the most intimate story also appears to be the most self-conscious. ‘Colossus of Rhodes’ runs on two parallel tracks: in the first, the narrator is on holiday in Cephalonia with his wife and two daughters; in the second, he remembers a family holiday as a boy in Rhodes, making him simultaneously parent and child. Power captures the narrator’s parental urge to protect as he covers his children in sun cream, while his young daughter asserts her freedom by standing on her own at the bus stop ‘in a way she considers extremely grown-up’.

Conversely, as a boy, his desire for autonomy comes at the expense of his own wellbeing: while playing an arcade game alone, he is groped in broad daylight by a smiling old man, and later, while lagging behind his family, he finds a dying cat and becomes responsible for putting it out of its misery. Power addresses the reader directly, explaining that ‘it’s a cat in the story because a kitten would be too much’, and that in real life the kitten was killed purely for sport by some local children. ‘Maybe it’s because I never spoke about these things to anyone that I find it so difficult to shape them into a story now,’ he writes. Here, the unspoken becomes a curse, and storytelling a balm, as it will later become for Eva. Stories seem to offer a way of ordering and editing experience – ‘they don’t have to be “true” true’, Eva’s therapist explains – and in doing so, they offer the chance to defang the past. But the chasm, in ‘Colossus’, between the official and unofficial accounts, might leave us wary of fictions that attempt to shield us from the blow.

There is a tendency to think of short stories as episodes while novels are journeys – a sentiment expressed by the most recent winner of the BBC National Short Story Award, Cynan Jones. That works for some writers – certainly it works for Jones – but a collection of stories like MOTHERS needs a different definition. MOTHERS takes a theme too complex to approach except obliquely – the conflict between love and freedom – and, like a particle accelerator, repeatedly fires ideas at it to see what can be inferred from the collision. Power writes mothers, but also daughters, sons, lovers, families and bickering couples, testing different ages, sexualities, genders and cultures to create a composite which arrives at more than the sum of its parts – not a clutch of episodes, but a single, unified, many-sided work, best read cover to cover.


First published by The White Review.