Monday, January 01, 2007

Because They Wanted To by Mary Gaitskill

I suppose that it is common among habitual readers to fear that they may have exhausted the supply of good books, or, at least, that they are unlikely to find new, exciting authors with anything like the regularity of the past. That fear has flickered in me so often, only to be erased in a day or two by the discovery of yet another wonderful word-weaver. My discovery of the day actually had her first volume published in 1988, but because the well of wonderful writers is, in fact, so deep, it doesn’t surprise me at all that I only now discovered her. She also has helped to chip away at my not well reasoned prejudice against and avoidance of short stories. The author’s name is Mary Gaitskill, and today I want to talk about her collection of short stories published in 1997, entitled Because they wanted to; I am now half way into her initial collection, Bad Behavior, and find it to be equally exciting and disturbing. Everything I say below about the ’97 collection I would say as well of the earlier ’88 collection.

It does not surprise me at all to read descriptions on the jacket covers of her works that include words like ‘ferocious’, ‘terrifying’, ‘thrilling’, ‘breathtaking’, ‘razor-sharp’, ‘harrowing’, ‘caustic’. Indeed, her writing is all of these things. She is brutally honest in her description of relationships; her minute descriptions of sexual acts and of the mental monologues that accompany the action are shocking even to a reader not easily shocked. But if her writing is shocking, it is also beautiful and utterly convincing. As I have said many times, I am a reader who is content to be a reader; even reading the best writing seldom evokes in me the desire to write, except when I read writers who are writing about reading and readers. But Gaitskill is the exception; were I to write, I would aspire to write with the bare, sometimes almost painfully honest style that she seems to achieve effortlessly. I lack both the skill and the courage to write as she does. Her metaphors are so unexpected that they seem to jump from the page; they often seem contradictory, and yet as soon as they have been absorbed strike at least this reader as brilliant—so accurate that it seems surprising that they have not been used before.

Each of her stories is a little vignette that stands alone, and yet after reading just a few of them, it becomes quite obvious that the author is describing lived experiences. Remarkably, Gaitskill seems equally able to write with either a male or a female voice, but no one who reads a half dozen or so of the stories will doubt that the mind behind the stories is that of a woman—and one who has witnessed many of the things related in the stories. She describes both heterosexual and homosexual relationships; she understands the world of sadomasochism, and describes it in ways that help at least this reader come to some partial understanding of it, and to at least temper some of my knee-jerk rejection and revulsion of those ways of relating. Her descriptions are neither pretty nor sentimental, but the very honesty and straight-forwardness of the writing allows the reader to see the characters with what Iris Murdoch would call love and justice—to be released at least for the moment from the obfuscating veil of ones own cares and concerns and to thus to see more clearly the world being described.

Quoting a few lines from what are already sparse, understated stories cannot do justice to Gaitskill’s writing, but let me at least try to give you the flavor of her stories. One of the stories, “Orchid,” is about a chance meeting of a woman, Margot, with a man, Patrick, whom she has not seen for sixteen years, but the meeting brings back a flood of memories for Margot, and the reader gets to eavesdrop on those memories. Margot had been a non-romantic roommate of Patrick in college, along with Patrick’s sister and another student majoring in mathematics. The sister, Dolores, is eating and at the same time gluing false fingernails onto her fingers and painting them with red polish.

Donald, the math major, watched her with bemusement and, Margot thought, perverse, furtive attraction enlivened by a little hot streak of disgust. Patrick did not watch her, but Margot felt his attention sometimes touch his sister, quickly, like a traveling drop of light, as if he were checking to be sure she was still there. He sat at the table in a torpid slouch, but his hazel eyes were live and expectant. He held his limbs, especially his hands, in peculiar twists that made Margot imagine his inner muscles in secret shapes of furious discord, but his posture was light, lax, and happy. She knew that his mother sometimes sent him bottles of Valium or Xanax, because she had once been present when one of his would-be girlfriends intercepted a care package and dumped the contents in the toilet. But she didn’t think his languor was drug induced. It seemed more the product of an unusual distribution of self, as if, by some crafty manipulation of internal circuitry, he’d concentrated himself in certain key psychic posts and abandoned the vast regions he didn’t want to be in. These empty spaces had an almost electrical allure, more highly charged than his distinct presence in the areas he occupied. Men didn’t like him very much, but whenever the phone rang, it was almost always a girl for Patrick.
Margot, usually drawn both sexually and romantically to women, cannot understand her own fascination with Patrick, both in their past as roommates, and now again after their chance meeting in New York. A steady stream of attractive women has flowed into and out of Patrick’s life, with him seeming to have very little to do with either their entrances or exits. When she asks why he bothers to be with them at all, given his flatness, his apparent lack of real interest, he responds that he is with them because they choose him, because he can’t think of a good reason to say ‘No’. Her inner confusion is compounded by the fact that the few times Patrick has made sexual moves towards her, she has sensed both his lack of real interest and her own. The story plays out with the attraction-repulsion recurring again and again, and then like most of her stories, simply ends without resolution, and yet in the process one seems to discover a lot about why so many relationships fail, and perhaps a bit about what might make some go right.

Another of the stories, “The Dentist,” begins with a botched and painful tooth-extraction by a kind but seemingly inept dentist. The female patient, Doreen, has to return to the dentist for further treatment of the resultant dry socket, and finds herself increasingly drawn to him romantically, perhaps sexually. “She remembered the dentist at his office with his hands in her mouth. She was aroused, and the ridiculousness of her arousal embarrassed her.” What follows is a series of meetings between the two in which Doreen, without being able to understand her own feelings, attempts to seduce the ever-kind and seemingly interested dentist who backs clumsily away from each of her advances. And his very rejections seem to incite Doreen further; “she couldn’t believe that the dentist’s almost morbidly bland public self had nothing to do with the increasingly alarming image she had of him. She felt she was sensing some secret part of him, something that was hurting him as well as her.” She begins to regard his patients, at least the female patients, as victims, and yet she also feels that she wants to be victimized by him. She wants him to hurt her in ways that she is convinced he wants to hurt her, if only he could step away from the blandness, unleash the repressed desires. But is this really about him, or simply revealing something about her? Again, this is an odd, even troubling story, but one that seems so full of meaning.

I may have said more to discourage you from picking up this volume than I have to encourage you, but believe me when I say that Gaitskill is a stunning writer. I can hardly wait to get my hands on her new novel, Veronica, and to be shocked and informed by her once again.

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