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.