Monday, June 18, 2007

Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill

If you have read any of my reviews in the past, you probably realize that once I find an author I like, I tend to read up all of their work pretty quickly, or at least read them until I think I have learned from them what I can. This has definitely been the case with the intriguing and troubling author, Mary Gaitskill. I have talked to you before about her two collections of short stories and her recent novel, Veronica; today I am going to talk about her other novel published in 1991, Two Girls, Fat and Thin.

Some of my reader friends who have taken my advice and read Gaitskill have returned the books to me, often only partially read, asking me again just why I have thought her important enough as an author to recommend her to others. Yes, they have agreed, she is a wonderful user of the language; yes, she does come up with metaphors that are striking, surprising, sometimes beautiful (though in a distorted or twisted way). Yes, she certainly describes well what life must be like for some young, beautiful girls/women who get sucked up into the world of modeling and/or the sex trade. Yes, she provides a window into the lives of young street kids in New York City and San Francisco. But her characters are often so sad, the lives she describes often so bleak and desperate, and with so little suggestion about how things can be made better. Defending her to one such skeptical friend, I pointed out that she tells us so much about how sado-masochism plays into the sexual lives of some people and how our knee-jerk rejections of all forms of S&M are blind and misinformed. Perhaps, he agreed, but she seems to go on and on with her descriptions, and one can only take so much of such stuff or learn from it. What is her point in the continuing descriptions? How is the information she gives us helpful or hopeful?

Certainly, as I read Two Girls, Fat and Thin the above questions returned to me over and over. I almost put the book down early, but could not quite do it. USA Today calls the book “darkly, erotically compelling,” and another commentator talks of Gaitskill’s “brainy lyricism, of acid shot through with grace.” I can’t say I see the book as erotic, but I certainly see the acid, and I certainly see the grace. She is a stunningly honest writer, holding nothing back—not bad language, not rather horrific scenes.

As in Veronica, this is book about a relationship between two women, one who is slim and beautiful, the other fat and intentionally unstylish. The women, at least on the surface, seem to be about as unlike as any two people can be, and yet there is a kind of alliance that forms between them. Both have been sexually molested as children, and their sexuality has formed out of that molestation. The immediate cause of their meeting is a shared interest in a controversial intellectual, Anna Granite, who is quite obviously based on the equally controversial Ayn Rand. Dorothy, the fat and unlovely woman who finds a kind of salvation in the works of Granite, and in fact comes to work for Granite as a kind of secretary, answers an ad placed by the younger, beautiful Justine Shade who is a writer wanting to write an article about the once famous but now almost forgotten Anna Granite.

Once we are introduced to the two main characters, the novel proceeds in alternating chapters to tell us about the childhoods of the two lead characters, and only at novel’s end are their separate stories brought together, again via their mutual interests in Anna Granite.

The first time I wrote this piece, I felt obliged at this point to go off on a critique of Ayn Rand and the na├»ve and pernicious form of selfishness that she endorsed. But this novel is not really about Rand; it is about the odd bond that forms between these two women as a result of their shared interest in the Rand-like character. What Gaitskill seems to realize and wants to point out, and what I had never noticed in my earlier readings of Rand, is that for the fifties and sixties when Rand’s work became famous, there is a rather strong feminist current in her work. Rand urged women not to see themselves simply as extensions of their men or of their families. Her female characters are at least as strong and authentic as her male characters; it is not surprising that women who had been abused by their fathers, their husbands and boyfriends found a message of hope and strength in Rand. Women are not simply the helpmates of men, are not simply to be used by men; it is not a virtue for women to submerge themselves in the needs of others. Dorothy comes to see that a healthy sense of self-interest is not the same as selfishness, and that it may be a requirement for sanity, for salvation.

Indeed, when towards the end of the book, Dorothy rushes to Justine’s apartment to confront her about Justine’s rather scathing article on Anna Granite, she finds that the beautiful Justine is in many ways a victim of her beauty, of her sexual appeal for men, and that in truth she has no more real and caring friends than the dumpy Dorothy. In fact, Dorothy rescues Justine from an S&M scene that has gotten out of hand, and quite literally throws the man, naked and protesting, out of Justine’s apartment.
Then I realized she was crying. Tears dropped from her chin onto her folded hands, and she trembled small and hard. She sat erect and contained, dabbing at her face with the sleeve of her robe and gulping discreetly. I didn’t comfort her because her body did not invite it. But I sat with my heart opened to her, feeling her heart mournfully opening to me, sending me the messages that can be received only by another heart, that which the intellect can never apprehend.
And so there is almost what you would call a happy ending to this novel, a kind of resolution in which these two quite different women open out to one another, see one another for the first time, see how each is in many ways simply acting out a life fashioned by her past. There is at least the hint of a budding friendship, a suggestion of a brighter and less lonely future for both.

I still can’t be sure what I’m getting from Gaitskill, and yet I know if she publishes again, I will read what she has written. Her voice is very much here and now, and when her stuff is sad, it is a sadness of the here and now world we live in. I am glad to have heard her voice. I cannot shake the sense that I am learning something important from her.

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