When the Whip Comes Down: On Mary Gaitskill

When the Whip Comes Down: On Mary Gaitskill

When the Whip Comes Down: On Mary Gaitskill

With Don’t Cry, a disabling self-consciousness has crept into Mary Gaitskill’s fiction.



The culture has caught up with Mary Gaitskill, and she’s not happy about it. “Things are not like they once were,” a journalist says in Don’t Cry, an awkwardly self-conscious new collection that seems to represent something of an artistic midlife crisis. “Sex and the City is on TV.” The journalist is thinking about a famous “feminist author” who writes about pornography and prostitution with a television glibness that fails to acknowledge the “darkness and mystery” that lies between “intelligent words on one side, and mute genitals on the other.” The author is a kind of anti- or counter-Gaitskill, the sort of writer she’s worried we might mistake her for. “The feminist author…read her disturbing stories as if she were a lady at a tea party, as if there were no mystery, no darkness, just her, the feminist author skipping along, swinging some charming little bag, and singing about penises, la la la la la!”

When Gaitskill published her first collection, Bad Behavior, in 1988, sex, in the city or otherwise, was most certainly not on TV. Her blunt stories of prostitution, sadomasochism and other flavors of sexual degradation came as a lash to the cultural system. (“A book that was like a little box with monsters inside it,” she calls the volume at an autobiographical moment in the new collection. One story, “Secretary,” was committed to film, but only many years later and only in what Gaitskill has called “the ‘Pretty Woman’ version.”) In other respects, the book arrived right on time. As Ariel Levy noted recently in The New Yorker, feminism had passed in the 1980s from the era of egalitarianism, consciousness-raising and nurture to a harder-edged embrace of lust and power, a desire to appropriate rather than abjure stereotypically masculine energies, that was exemplified by S&M. On Our Backs, the first women’s sex magazine, debuted in 1984. Herotica, the initial book in what became a long-running series, came out in 1988, the same year as Bad Behavior.

If women’s relationship to sex was changing, so was sex itself. The sexual revolution had flown the flag of freedom, self-expression and guiltless pleasure: The Joy of Sex and The Sensuous Woman, Norman O. Brown and the almighty Pill, hippies, swingers, vibrators, orgies, “free love” and the zipless fuck. Sex was fun, sex was wholesome, sex was natural. By the late ’80s, things had long since ceased to be so simple, and not just because of AIDS. Two Girls, Fat and Thin, Gaitskill’s second book and first novel, published three years after Bad Behavior, made the connection between what was happening in the bedroom and what was happening in the country. Sadomasochism became the master metaphor for human relations in the Ayn Randian dystopia of Reagan’s America, a landscape of domination and persecution, littered with the broken and the homeless, where the ideology is winner-take-all and the only rule is fuck or be fucked. Sex, like everything else, was now about power. Two Girls is a novel of the ’80s and a novel of New York; the psychic relations that Gaitskill had made her subject she saw inscribed all over the city, written on its faces and its streets.

A second collection, Because They Wanted To, appeared in 1997. Taken together, Gaitskill’s first three books established a tightly coherent vision expressed through a narrow but powerful array of themes and techniques. For Gaitskill, Rand and Reagan are only extreme expressions of a universal condition, and the social world itself is a Hobbesian jungle of the hideous, the merciless and the weak. Its paradigm and training ground is childhood, which Gaitskill returns to throughout these three books as if it were a wound she can’t stop licking:

The assigned classroom was filled with murderously aggressive boys and rigid girls with animal eyes who threw spitballs, punched each other, snarled, whispered, and stared one another down. And shadowing all these gestures and movements were declarations of dominance, of territory, the swift, blind play of power and weakness.

Given such conditions, the only viable strategy is to bury your feelings as deeply as possible. In Two Girls, the most despised of the classroom outcasts is nicknamed “‘Emotional,’ the worst insult imaginable”: “Every answer seemed to come out of some horrible complex individuality reeking with humanity, the clarity and trust in her soft voice made them squirm with discomfort.”

The result is at once self-enclosure and self-alienation. Gaitskill’s characters are young women and men set adrift between adolescence and adulthood, members-in-training of the so-called creative class, like so many of us are or once were. They hole up in cruddy apartments, work demeaning jobs and nurse vague creative aspirations while making the desultory round of bars, clubs and parties in the demimonde of urban hipsterdom. But Gaitskill gives her characters a larger than ordinary allotment of psychic distress. It doesn’t matter if childhood trauma figures explicitly in their stories; with their stunted or fragile or provisional selves, their baffled craving for comfort, they are all still damaged children. Their predicament creates a suffocating compound of psychological pressure and emotional desiccation, along with a lurking sense of threat that originates not in the outside world but in the hidden places of the psyche, in the violence that unacknowledged desires are capable of calling down. Gaitskill’s characters have a blind spot where their personalities are supposed to be, and it’s staring at the back of their heads. They can’t feel what they feel or want what they want. They aren’t struggling, like their peers, to decide what to be; they’re trying to figure out who they are.

Needless to say, they have even more trouble making contact with other people. Gaitskill’s characters spend most of the time in their own heads: imagining, picturing, fantasizing, dreaming–rearranging reality, like a child playing with dolls, into manageable scenarios. “He could feel his eyes become clouded with privacy as he slipped discreetly into a sheltering cave of sexual fantasy.” “She imagined Leisha as an actress in a sci-fi movie…. As a mother in a blue-and-white checked blouse…. As an aging hipster in a bar…. As a bag lady.” When contact comes between such heavily defended souls, it takes the form of penetration, physical or psychological. One of Gaitskill’s characters falls in love with a dentist and fantasizes about having her labia pierced with needles. Another violates her playmate with a toothbrush. Abjection and humiliation become the nearest tolerable approaches to intimacy. “I feel too vulnerable” for sex, one woman says. “I just want somebody to hurt me and humiliate me.” Role-play–fantasy projected outward, a kind of psychological bondage–defuses the disruptive potential of sex and love. “You’re so sweet,” the same character tells a lover. “I just want to tie you up and torture you.” The palliation is inevitably transient. Gaitskill’s stories typically end with the breaking off of contact, the protagonist returning alone to her empty, safe apartment.

Given the obsessive quality of Gaitskill’s thematic focus, it is hard not to read her work as psychic self-portraiture. Like a number of her characters, Gaitskill left home at 16, went to the University of Michigan, worked as a stripper and prostitute, experienced sexual violation, spent time in a mental institution, lived in New York and San Francisco. Bad Behavior didn’t appear until she was 33, many years into her own apprenticeship in anomie. An autobiographical story in the new collection describes the period of the book’s composition as “five dreary years…in a tiny apartment with a sink and a stove against one wall and a mattress against the other…. I neglected my family. I forgot how to talk to people.”

The shock value of Gaitskill’s early work comes from the fact that she dared to write about her psychological situation; its artistic value comes from the fact that she figured out how to express it in a style. The substructure of her prose consists of a minute attention to physical and social detail that bespeaks an outsider’s hooded, vengeful observation: “His eyes and nose were arrogant and ignorant, his mouth was sensual and nervous, wanting to please. But his forehead was powerful, discerning, and strange.” The acuity is remarkable, but the description also functions as an act of imaginative dismemberment and dehumanization. As the title of Two Girls, Fat and Thin suggests, Gaitskill’s gimlet eye exposes and persecutes ugliness and imperfection like the worst locker-room tyrant: “He turned the edge of one nostril over with his thumb and nervously stroked his nose hairs with one finger.” (A culture that worships beauty will spawn a countervailing literature of ugliness, as the author of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men also understood.) The relentless attention to bodily squalor is humiliating, punitive, sadistic. The tone is cold, detached–almost all of Gaitskill’s early stories are written in the third person–the syntax probes and penetrates like a dental drill. Defenses are stripped, secrets revealed, hidden places touched. Her titles are sarcastic: “A Romantic Weekend,” “Something Nice,” “Comfort.” Gaitskill, like her characters, is a deviser of scenarios, and no more merciful than they to her Barbies and Kens.

The effect is of a writer simultaneously occupying both sides of the sadomasochistic dynamic, inflicting pain, white-lipped, on her own alter egos. She is the whip, and she is also the cringing flesh. Again, the psychological condition, infused with urgency, carries over into the fiction, this time at the level of structure. Gaitskill’s stories typically involve some kind of psychic division. The title of Two Girls is again representative. Gaitskill is the fat outcast, and she is also the neurotic young writer who pursues her. Other narratives dramatize acts of compartmentalization or disassociation. In one, an arty young woman moonlights as a prostitute, stepping out of the world of galleries and name-dropping and into a different persona. Still other stories juxtapose a pair of young women, usually embittered ex-friends, as if to suggest that each represents a version of the other. And many of Gaitskill’s narratives, including Two Girls, revolve around a temporal split, the past unfolding in memory as the protagonist thinks back to an earlier, different self.

By writing so close to the bone, Gaitskill brought to her early fiction a remarkable force of immediacy and psychological penetration. This is her greatness as a writer. Her premises are repetitive, her range of characters limited, her plotting unambitious. The genius of her work is all in the details. “I didn’t even enjoy [my mother’s] stroking; I devoured it with feverish passivity, my mind lunging forward ahead of her fingers to consume her touch before it came.” This is experience rendered as it really is, not as we smooth it over in our minds. “It was fun to say that I liked something refined and cruel,” thinks a woman swapping fantasies with friends, “but under the fun was an impatient yank of boredom and under that was indignation and pain.” All is subtext for Gaitskill, the real messages we pass back and forth beneath the social dumb show. “[Her mother] did talk to her about being ‘nice’ in reference to boys and to bullying other kids, but Justine understood from her tone of voice that ‘nice’ had nothing to do with what anybody really felt or thought or observed but was something everybody had to pretend.”

And always, with Gaitskill, it is the body, the seat of our souls and the shape of our fate, that speaks the loudest. “It was a dark bar with heavy air, tended and frequented mainly by old men whose personalities seemed to have drained from their upper bodies and become lodged in their buttocks and thighs.” Gaitskill reads the body like a doctor feeling for organs. “I had sensed it when I put my hand on his midsection; it had felt angry, and bitterly wounded, but also vigilant, dignified, and determined to preserve its form.” Nothing is lost on her; nobody is what they pretend to be; everything in the human world is saturated with meanings. Good writers show us new places. Great writers give us new ways of looking at the old one. Just as Ruskin enabled a generation of Europeans to see the landscape that was actually in front of them rather than the conventionalized approximations they carried around in their heads, so is Gaitskill one of those rare artists who can endow us with braver, more vigilant senses. You step out of her books and into a whole new world.

Veronica, a novel that appeared four years ago to great acclaim, marks both the summit of Gaitskill’s work to date and the first stages of what looks thus far like decline. The point of inflection can be specified precisely: it is the moment Veronica enters the story, exactly halfway through. Until then the novel has all belonged to Alison, a Gaitskillian vagabond typical in all ways but this: she is completely gorgeous. After a stint as a San Francisco runaway, Alison is plucked from her drab New Jersey home and set down in the erogenous zones of Parisian high fashion–to walk the runways, live the life and show the world the face of its dreams.

But Veronica is something more than the Gaitskillian world on club music and coke, a gilded edition of squalor. It also does something completely new. You can feel it right from the start, in the novel’s nervous system, which is to say, its syntax. The sentences are shorter, the rhythms franker and more direct. Gone are the neurotic complications of syntax, the anxious poking and probing. A calm center anchors the swirl of perception, as if Gaitskill’s voice had settled down from her throat into her belly. You wouldn’t think her writing could have gotten any more immediate than it already was, but the old immediacy was one of description, an analytic clarity untouched by what it sees. Here she feels directly implicated, and we feel it along with her.

The key change involves the novel’s point of view. Veronica is narrated in the first person, by Alison. Alison is something unprecedented in Gaitskill’s work, a character who fully integrates her creator’s personality. Despite the fact that the novel again revolves around the relationship between two women, it is not another instance of self-division. Veronica is not a dimension of Gaitskill’s soul, and leaves Alison in full command of its energies. The X-ray vision is still there, but it is wedded to a new warmth, and the combination raises Gaitskill’s prose to a level of lyric intensity she sustains for dozens of pages at a stretch. Paragraphs unfold like poems, like journeys, like presents you unwrap one sentence at a time. This one describes a fellow model:

On the runway, she was a bolt of lightning in a white Chanel dress. She turned and gave a look. Thumping music took you into the lower body, where the valves and pistons were working. You caught a dark whiff of shit, the sweetness of cherries, and the laughter of girls. Like lightning, the contrast cut down the center of the earth: We all eat and shit, screw and die. But here is Beauty in a white dress. Here is the pumping music, grinding her into meat and dirt. Here are the other girls coming in waves to refill Beauty’s slot. And here is little Alana, shrugging and turning away.

But then Veronica arrives, and the whole thing shifts. Alison meets the older woman while temping during a dead spot in her career. Veronica is 37: tart, proud, lurid, aging, absurd, with a smile like a badly healed wound. We’re back to New York in the ’80s. Veronica’s friends are gay men, and her lover is bisexual. Before long she has AIDS, and the rest of the novel narrates Alison’s first grudging, then repentant efforts to love her before she dies. But here Gaitskill drifts out of her depth, into realms of experience–compassion, redemption, transcendence–she doesn’t intuitively grasp or know how to represent. Alison’s transformation from spoiled teenage model to chastened older woman is more announced than shown. Even Veronica fails to come into focus, precisely because she is not a version of her creator. For all her observational acuity, Gaitskill has never displayed a capacity to inhabit the experiences of people significantly different from herself. (It is telling that the book is named after one woman but is really about the other.) The novel’s temporal structure–Alison remembers Veronica’s story from the vantage point of her own middle age, during a single walk in the woods–becomes so labored that even Gaitskill seems to tire of it. Most tellingly, the magic goes out of the prose. By the end, the novel is making vague, mystical gestures that we’re meant to take for wisdom.

The new collection extends the downward trajectory. The most striking thing about Don’t Cry is how miscellaneous it is: the autobiographical story; the story about the “feminist author,” which feels like an essay in disguise; a couple of classically Gaitskillian scenarios; a pair of linked narratives; a meditation on three imaginary news items; an exercise in point of view; an allegory–the volume seems to spend its length searching for direction. Old themes like sexuality and identity are taken out for another trot; new ones like maternity and connectedness are haltingly attempted. There is much discussion about the nature of writing but a surprising dearth of verbal energy. The volume seems to come from a writer who is no longer clear about what she wants to say or how she wants to say it.

A disabling self-consciousness appears to have crept into Gaitskill’s work. The allegory, “Mirror Ball,” exemplifies the problem. The premise is familiar: two young hipsters dealing with the emotional fallout of a one-night stand. But Gaitskill chooses to render the situation in symbolic terms that drain it of life. The boy, we’re told, has stolen a part of the girl’s soul, the part that “was joined with Ardor, and it compelled…the part of his soul that was joined with Hunger.” The girl’s soul-part gets trapped in the depths of the boy with the soul-parts of the other girls he’s slept with (Gentleness, Forbearance, Instinct), all of them circling the walls of the prison where half of the boy’s own soul got trapped when he was 2, on account of a withholding mother. And so forth. The whole thing sounds like The Pilgrim’s Progress as retold by Dr. Phil. The psychological dynamics Gaitskill once portrayed with such subtlety and plasticity have now hardened into a theory.

The theory involves a kind of sexualized cosmology. Its central image is that of a hole or shaft, “dark and deep as the pit of the earth. At the bottom of it ran boiling rivers of Male and Female” bearing “raw matter” and “primary force.” This is the female anatomy raised to a metaphysical first principle. At the same time, it is precisely “because she has the open part” that this “hell of shapeshifting and destruction”–“the deep place of sex”–is especially dangerous for a woman. “She needs rules, structures, intact shapes to make sure the openness doesn’t get too open.” “For a man, it is different…. He can walk triumphant in a place of no place.” Some of this is clear enough, some of it is pretty opaque, but the whole thing appears to constitute a private theology that has replaced the kind of intuitive exploration that Gaitskill once did so well.

I don’t use the religious term lightly. Veronica culminates in some fairly woolly mysticism about how the title character is received after death into the arms of “Love,” plus a dream vision in which she ascends to heaven perfected in body and soul. Don’t Cry ends with an even clearer gesture toward the miraculous. The last, titular story, also told in the first person, concerns a trip the narrator takes to Ethiopia to help a friend find a baby to adopt. The narrator’s husband has died recently, and she wears their wedding rings on a chain around her neck. At the story’s climax, the rings are stolen by a street thief. As the narrator weeps helplessly in the middle of the lane, a “very small old man” appears before her. “Stop,” he says. “Don’t cry.” And then he places the rings in her hand. The implications are clear. The lost will be found, the grieving comforted, the broken made whole.

This kind of sentimentalism, if not this kind of mystery-mongering, is frequent in the new collection. A boy without a father is solaced in an airport (the gateway to heaven, as it were) by a mother estranged from her children. Another mother puts her daughter to sleep while thinking of the wisdom that children have to teach. (Let’s hope the girl never meets any of the kids in Gaitskill’s earlier books.) Two women, intermittent lovers, draw closer through their encounters. The new mood extends to matters of form. Gaitskill has always made a practice of leaving her stories proudly unresolved. Here we’re treated to conclusions, benedictions, even epiphanies.

All this would be fine if the new stories were as good as the old ones, but they’re not even close. The pieces that predate Veronica show flashes of the old brilliance (the stories are presented in roughly the order in which they were published in magazine form), but the later ones appear to belong to a writer who no longer even remembers what she could once do. Gaitskill has taught creative writing for many years, and it seems like her students have started to rub off on her. One story, “Description,” actually reads like a parody of the kind of thing that gets produced in MFA programs, especially given the title and the fact that the characters have just graduated from one. The same mundane premise (“Joseph and his friend Kevin were driving to New Paltz for a hike”), the same flat language, the same kind of culminating recognition (“Kevin would always win. That’s just how it was”).

The trouble is, it follows an even broader piece of work. “The Arms and Legs of the Lake” offers a triple dose of writing-seminar clichés. It is topical in a facile way, it plays around with point of view and it carries one of those wistfully symbolic titles. The story not only shows how shallow Gaitskill’s engagement with history has become; it exposes her inability to imagine minds unlike her own even more painfully than Veronica. A mentally unbalanced Iraq War veteran is taking a train home for Mother’s Day, and the story’s perspective bounces around among the passengers in the car. The interior monologues are priceless. A guilty liberal: “This man has been damaged by the war, but still he is profound. He will not scorn my support because I’m white.” A World War II vet: “Anyone, anyone who knew what war was should be respected by those who didn’t. Perkins knew. It was long ago, but still he knew….” Gaitskill even attempts a little blackface: “He talks like he a killah, but he a baby, and everybody knows it.” We end up back with the Iraq veteran for a whiff of childhood reminiscence that sounds like a bad imitation of Benjy Compson.

It’s a familiar tale. A young writer pours her agonies of soul into work of uncompromising honesty. She stares into an abyss of pain so that we may see the truth. But few have the energy to sustain such effort indefinitely. Eventually, the spirit seeks rest–seeks comfort, seeks consolation, seeks peace. It happened to Wordsworth and Conrad, and now it seems to be happening to Mary Gaitskill. The hunger has gone out of her work. Gaitskill was a great poet of youthful suffering. Whether she can reinvent herself as a chronicler of maturity remains to be seen.

Ad Policy