We’re living in lonely times. Under orders to isolate at home, we’re separated from our friends, family, coworkers, communities. We find ourselves missing our loved ones and missing, too, the many strangers with whom we used to share the city streets. Some people wonder if and when they’ll touch another person. Others go feral, knowing that there’s no point in primping when they’re not going to be seen. Most of the time, these conditions feel unprecedented, unlivable.
Mary Gaitskill did not write her fiction for this moment, but as the country’s leading artist of prepandemic isolation—and of the sudden, miraculous collapse into intimacy that it can spawn—she is perhaps, more than any of her contemporaries, the writer of our times. A skillful composer of short stories and several novels, Gaitskill found herself breaking into public life with her collection Bad Behavior, a book acutely focused on loneliness and the destructive things many of us do to overcome it. Populated by teenage runaways, disillusioned sex workers, bored businessmen, exploited models turned temp workers, her fiction describes cities after work and late at night, in which her characters search for connection and only rarely find it. Sometimes they find moments of grace and kindness; most of the time they hurt each other gratuitously and indiscriminately. In one early story, “A Romantic Weekend,” two lovers with high hopes for an adulterous weekend witness their “seductive puffball cloud deflated with a flaccid hiss, leaving two drunken, bad-tempered, incompetent, malodorous people blinking and uncomfortable on its remains.” The scene is familiar rather than anomalous; discomfort is Gaitskill’s default setting.
Reading about her wary, lonely characters, one gets the sense the author knows whereof she writes. Her ex-husband, the writer Peter Trachtenberg, once wrote of Gaitskill, “I think I have never met anyone more lonely.” One imagines her response: Sure, but I’m in good company. In her fiction, loneliness is a universal experience, the thing that unites people across class divisions and divergent personal histories. And yet it’s also a great tragedy. When you feel alone, desperation drives your actions. A person might provoke or lash out or lie, all in the hope, perhaps even the unconscious desire, that she will be seen or even seen through—that is, recognized as a damaged but tractable soul beneath a well-wrought surface.
This is how Gaitskill depicts Quin, one of the two narrators of her most recent work of fiction, This Is Pleasure, who is caught up in a publishing industry scandal, the kind now familiar from the Me Too movement. First we hear from Margot, a book editor well into a successful career, who recalls how her friend and fellow editor boasted about flirting with a stranger. Then we hear from Quin—the culprit—who has slunk back into his office in the night to retrieve a resilient orchid. He has been forced out of his job because he was sued for sexual harassment by a female former employee. Since her suit went public, we learn, other women have come forward with similar complaints. The story switches between the perspectives of Quin and Margot, friends for decades, as they try to reckon with what he has done wrong and how the industry has changed since the two of them started working in it.
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The story is typical of Gaitskill in that it explores a familiar, even clichéd situation, only to subvert our expectations. The story is not one of justice served, nor is it one of justice miscarried. Instead, it is a story about how loneliness can deform a person, even one who seems to have so much going for him. The story doesn’t excuse Quin’s behavior, but in recognizing his flaws, it doesn’t outright condemn it, either. Instead, it asks us to see Quin for who he is—eager, erring, lonely, a creep and a bad guy who probably deserves to lose his job but not his humanity—and it also asks us to try to recognize what we might share with him, what might cause us to behave badly. If this story of sexual misconduct refuses easy resolutions, it also offers something more sustaining: a recognition of the loneliness plaguing each of us and a suggestion for how the damaged among us might possibly be redeemed.
Loneliness—and the desire to escape it—is a current that has run through most of Gaitskill’s life. Born in 1954 in Kentucky and raised in the suburbs of Detroit, she ran away from home during high school. “It was a whole huge mess,” she later told an interviewer. She wandered from Detroit to Toronto to California, working a series of odd jobs, including street vendor, clerk, and stripper. She ended up stripping for only a short time, but critics and interviewers have focused on it, to Gaitskill’s frustration. Finding herself once again being asked about that interlude in a 1999 interview with the writer Charles Bock, she responded, “Like most jobs I’ve had, I saw a lot of different things go on, it didn’t bring me to any one or two conclusions.” When he asked about how she chose the “sexual battlefield” as her subject matter, she let out what’s described as an “audible sigh.”
She eventually expounded on some of her frustrations with those critics in the story “The Agonized Face,” from her 2009 collection Don’t Cry. In it, an unnamed “feminist author” appears at a literary festival and refuses to read from her work. Rather, she speaks about how she’s been characterized by the local media and festival organizers in brochures advertising her participation and her history of sex work. “They had ignored the content of her work completely, focusing instead on the most sensational aspects of her life—the prostitution, the drug use, the stay in a mental hospital, the attempt on her father’s life—in a way that was both salacious and puritanical.” The writer reminds the audience that “when we isolate qualities that seem exciting, but maybe a little scary…we not only deny that person her humanity but we impoverish and cheat ourselves of life’s complexity and tenderness!” Here we see the worldview that suffuses so much of Gaitskill’s writing. There’s an allergy to reflexive judgment, a moral dedication to capturing human intricacy.
This impulse was there from the beginning. In Bad Behavior, the 1988 short story collection that earned her epithets like the “queen of kink,” Gaitskill frequently focuses on moments and characters in which opposite feelings and qualities intertwine. In one story, for example, we meet a man trying to dominate his female partner; he feels “an impulse to embrace her” but then “a stronger impulse to beat her.” In another, a woman finds herself “horrified and fascinated” by “the desolation and cruelty of the city” at four in the morning. In a third, a woman working a menial job suspects that a wealthy friend views her with “a mixture of secret repugnance and respect.” Relationships are also built on competing impulses. In one story, a sadist is both cruel and helpful in attempting to fulfill a woman’s genuine desires. A boss, a harasser, victimizes his employee and at the same time spurs an important awakening in her. These encounters are not enjoyable exactly, but neither are they entirely damaging. They are simply things that happen.
Often, conflicting feelings arise in the face of weakness. As Deana, the sage girlfriend of the brittle Connie, puts it in the story “Other Factors,” “It’s kind of strange to be confronted so aggressively with somebody else’s frailty. Some people will want to protect you, as I did, but some people will want to hurt you. Others will be merely afraid of you, for the obvious reason that it reminds them of their own frailty.” Weakness in Gaitskill’s work is both an enticement and a threat. People seek to exploit it in others, hoping that by doing so, they’ll expunge it in themselves. But rarely does this impulse get her characters what they crave: recognition, connection, love.
Gaitskill wrote the stories that make up Bad Behavior over five years in the 1980s, after her graduation from the University of Michigan, where she studied journalism and writing, and her move to New York City. In her last year at Michigan, she won the Avery Hopwood Award for writing. It was usually a predictor of literary success, but Gaitskill found it more a harbinger of frustrated promise. Unable to sell any of her stories to magazines, she worked various clerical jobs, including one at the Strand Bookstore. These day jobs gave her material; she offered sharp accounts of the anomie and ennui that can come from doing office work. They also gave her models for some of her characters, many of whom work in offices.
Gaitskill’s best-known piece of fiction, “Secretary,” is a story about office work. A newly trained typist and the only first-person narrator in Bad Behavior, Debby finds a job doing “very dull work” for an unusually inquisitive lawyer. She is a detached, closed-off person—“like a wall,” the lawyer observes—and he wants to draw her out, to get her to “loosen up.” He eventually gets what he wants: After Debby makes a series of typing errors, the lawyer spanks her in his office. “The word ‘humiliation’ came into my mind with such force that it effectively blocked out all other words,” she recalls. “Further, I felt that the concept it stood for had actually been a major force in my life for quite a while.” Aroused and ashamed at the same time, she masturbates to the memory that evening.
There are two more encounters between Debby and the lawyer, escalating in intensity and intimacy, and she begins to have recurring dreams. In one, they’re standing in a field of flowers, and the lawyer tells her, “I understand you now, Debby.” After he ejaculates on her during another spanking session, Debby quits her job but says nothing to members of her family, although they can tell “something hideous” has happened. The lawyer eventually sends her a note of apology and $200, along with a request that she keep their encounters secret. Debby does, even when a reporter calls seeking information about her former boss. Feeling as if she’s watching herself from outside her body, she says of the sensation, “It wasn’t such a bad feeling at all.” The story ends on this moment of dissociation, a common response for people too traumatized to stay in their own skin.
“Secretary” was eventually made into a 2002 film starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal. In the essay “Victims and Losers,” Gaitskill calls the film “the Pretty Woman version” of her story, smoothed out to present its heroine as empowered. Gaitskill understands this emphasis on empowerment as a sign of Americans’ fear of being seen as victims—of being humiliated or powerless or lonely. But for Gaitskill, the weakness her protagonist feels is something worth preserving; it is, above all else, a mark of her humanity. “To be human,” Gaitskill writes, “is finally to be a loser, for we are all fated to lose our carefully constructed sense of self, our physical strength, our health, our precious dignity, and finally our lives.”
Recognizing fragility can also lead to different and more meaningful victories—another theme that runs through her short stories and novels. In 1997’s “The Blanket,” one of the sweetest stories Gaitskill has written, a 36-year-old woman and a 24-year-old man confess their love and commit to their relationship, but they can do so only after they have both admitted to the depth of their fear: the woman by telling the man that a particular bit of sexual role-playing upset her, the man by telling the woman how scared he is of losing her. In her first novel, Two Girls Fat and Thin (1991), two lonely women, both molested as children, find a tenuous connection, but only after one of them, a journalist, has published an unflattering account of the other. The book’s final scene finds the two women sleeping in bed together, a platonic echo of the concluding scene in “The Blanket.”
The Mare (2015), Gaitskill’s third novel, doesn’t give us the same kind of happy ending. The book is a rewriting of the 1935 novel National Velvet (later a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney) told from the perspective of several narrators, the point of view changing with every chapter. As in the original novel, The Mare describes how a girl named Velvet (in Gaitskill’s version, an 11-year-old Dominican American from the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn) tames an unruly horse and becomes a skilled rider. It ends with Velvet, now 13, winning her first equestrian competition and then immediately swearing off horseback riding forever at the behest of her abusive mother. Though the novel presents love as a dangerous force, it also acknowledges that it can provide people with moments of sweet communion—from Ginger, the childless woman (and avatar for Gaitskill) who fosters Velvet, singing to her while brushing her hair, to Velvet, feeling a connection to her horse “where my legs touched her sides…and we were in it together,” to Velvet’s mother and brother, who join Ginger in cheering the girl to victory in her first and only equestrian competition. It’s hard to characterize these moments; words like “happy” and “joyful” don’t really do them justice, as they suggest the absence of pain or foreknowledge or doubt. Instead, these scenes are fleeting moments of connection and reprieve, and the characters can sense their end. Beyond impermanence, they are marked by ecstasy and quite often by forgiveness. They represent something like grace.
While Gaitskill’s fiction is all about ambiguity, her nonfiction tends to be clear to the point of bluntness. In 1994 she wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine, “On Not Being a Victim,” that was an intervention in the debate then raging over date rape. On one side, there was a growing number of feminists who wanted to establish clear rules for sexual engagement—rules that men would know and obey—so women would not have to experience unwanted sexual advances. On the other side, there were figures like Camille Paglia and Katie Roiphe, who insisted that women who made themselves vulnerable to violation were either stupid or naive (Paglia) or misrepresenting their experiences out of shame or regret (Roiphe).
Frustrated by the extremes she found on both sides, Gaitskill tried to plot a third course by looking with a fairly unsparing eye at difficult sexual encounters in her life, including two rapes. If she did not vilify the men involved, neither did she blame herself for being “stupid.” Gaitskill instead focused on the need for both men and women to better understand their desires and actions. Insisting that she did have some control over how at least some of these situations played out, she also recognized that ultimately she did not have all of the control. To create a world of sexual equality would require more than just rules; it would also require greater introspection on the part of men and women.
She presented herself as a case study. As a younger person, Gaitskill had trouble determining and then conveying what she wanted (and what she didn’t want), and she sometimes suffered because of this. She suggested that other men and women ran into similar difficulties. She was not responsible for other people’s actions, but her upsetting sexual encounters prompted her to reexamine her own motivations and desires. Gaitskill calls this “personal responsibility”—not the kind that Paglia and Roiphe wrote about but a self-awareness that helps a person protect herself and others.
Because of the phrase “personal responsibility,” “On Not Being a Victim” could easily be read as a provocation in today’s context, with Gaitskill joining ranks with the anti-feminists. But she was not agreeing with Paglia and Roiphe; she was trying to show the fallacies in their thinking. To insist, as Paglia did, that just by going to a frat party, you take on the risk that you might be sexually assaulted was essentially to absolve the assailants of their transgressions. Gaitskill, on the other hand, was insisting on an inward reckoning, a questioning of one’s impulses and reactions. “Dealing with my feelings and what had caused them, rather than expecting the outside world to assuage them,” was, for her, a key source of protection: The best means of self-defense required self-knowledge. Through it, she could feel “more confident” and recover her “ability to determine what happens to me.”
For her, both the feminists and the anti-feminists of the 1990s focused too narrowly on codifying sexual “rules” without paying attention to personal responsibility and self-awareness. “Roiphe and Paglia are not exactly invoking rules,” Gaitskill wrote, “but their comments seem to derive from a belief that everyone except idiots interprets information and experience in the same way. In that sense, they are not so different in attitude from those ladies dedicated to establishing feminist-based rules and regulations for sex.” The problem with these rules was not only how they were defined but also their inefficacy. Rules usually don’t work if people don’t buy into them. Gaitskill suggested that rules were quite often disempowering: If you’re told to follow a rule that doesn’t resonate with you (“Don’t sleep with someone on the first date”) or doesn’t seem to fit a particular situation (“Never objectify a woman”), then you can’t develop the kind of personal responsibility that enables you to better take charge of your life.
There might be a lot to argue with in Gaitskill’s essay, and certainly the argument she makes is out of step with our moment. But it would be a mistake to characterize her as a cynic or nihilist or someone who takes cruelty and pain for granted. Instead, Gaitskill wants us to better understand what motivates behavior—bad and good—and why people hurt each other in spite of rules and regulations. If she’s skeptical about the efficacy of rules, she’s remarkably optimistic about people’s capacity for self-reflection. The path she proposes in the essay is a more challenging one, but, she insists, it also has more potential to make lasting change.
This ethic of self-awareness and personal responsibility is also at the center of This Is Pleasure. In Margot’s eyes, Quin is a mixed bag. An eccentric with a foppish haircut and a quick wit, he is a champion of women writers and yet a boss who evaluates his assistants based on the shape of their butts. He’s a supportive friend—the only one to have Margot’s back during a moment of crisis—and a compulsive flirt, at one point even attempting to reach up her skirt. He can be perceptive; he notes that Caitlin, his assistant, is “intelligent, more than she realized, and I wanted her to learn how to use that intelligence more actively.” But he can also be astoundingly stupid. When Caitlin tells him that spanking is her kink, he sends her a clip from an old western in which John Wayne spanks an actress. Caitlin eventually sues Quin, citing the video as an offense.
This Is Pleasure was first published online by The New Yorker in July 2019. It calls to mind another piece of Me Too era fiction in the same magazine, Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” which went viral in December 2017. Roupenian’s story was full of irony and ambiguity and all the stuff that makes fiction fiction. But many women, fed up with predatory men and fired up for change, nonetheless read it as moral instruction and pressed it into the cause. Gaitskill’s story, like much of her fiction, resists such instrumentalization. Many who shared it on Twitter were strikingly coy concerning what they thought about it besides that it was “worth thinking about.” Writers from across the political spectrum praised the story without saying specifically what they admired about it. Even if they couldn’t agree on how to interpret it, most people agreed that they should respond.
This Is Pleasure is confounding in part because it seems more interested in examining Quin’s inner life than it does in judging his behavior. The story does not deny his culpability and acknowledges that the loss of his job fits his crimes. But through the character of Margot, Quin is seen as not so much evil or tragic but pitiful. Successfully soliciting the kind of attachments he does not want, he is his own worst enemy. If his behavior remains unsympathetic, his motivations—a desire to be seen and a desire to be loved—are all too human in Margot’s eyes.
This comes across in an early encounter between them. At a dinner together, Quin, who interviewed Margot for a job a few years earlier, tells her that he admires her new assertiveness. “I’m sure he didn’t say this right away,” she recalls, “but in my memory he did: ‘Your voice is so much stronger now! You are so much stronger now! You speak straight from the clit!’ And—as if it were the most natural thing in the world—he reached between my legs.” In response, Margot shoves her hand into his face, “palm out, like a traffic cop,” and tells him “no” as firmly as she can. But it is also in this very moment that she sees his humanity. “Looking mildly astonished, Quin sat back and said, ‘I like the strength and clarity of your ‘no.’” After this exchange, they order food, eat, talk, and later say goodbye “so warmly that a young man walking past smiled.”
It’s a remarkable moment. Quin recognizes Margot’s “no,” but Margot recognizes something in Quin—his desire, even his need to be restrained—and how, by denying his overt request, she formed a truer connection with him. Later, she remembers his expression when she stopped him from reaching up her skirt as “somehow grounded and more genuine than his reaching hand had been.” Their friendship is forged not despite but because of this brief moment of struggle, during which each reveals something to the other and recognizes something in turn.
As the story goes on, we learn that Margot cannot unsee this humanity even as Quin’s accusers grow in number. She doesn’t fault them for failing to see it themselves, and she understands why they felt hurt or exploited. Yet Margot remains his friend throughout, even as she grows even more dismayed by Quin’s lack of capacity for self-reflection, his defensiveness, and his self-justifications. At one point, he sits down to draft a statement—“I realize that the way I’ve carried myself in the world has not always been agreeable to those around me”—and finds his mind wandering to a piece of performance art and the sympathetic note he received recently from the artist, whom he describes as a “sexy girl.” Quin, Margot recognizes, can’t sustain the kind of self-inquiry that he needs in order to become “responsible,” and so he may continue to hurt people. But he’s also clearly lonely and desiring of a human connection. Margot has felt both of these things, too, and finds she cannot turn away.
For Gaitskill, the solutions to loneliness and the cruelty it so often prompts are honesty, vulnerability, and recognition; this is the underlying moral vision that courses through her fiction. Gaitskill may be a secular writer, but there is something almost religious in the way she depicts human frailty. It’s common—indeed, inevitable—and cannot be barred or banned or legislated away; it can only be viewed, unblinkingly. And sometimes, after enough thought and time, forgiven.
Gaitskill, while deeply moral, is not a moralist. Whereas others might only judge, she attends, as artists are meant to do. By offering us a portrait of ourselves, lonely and uncertain and vulnerable, she finds that miracles occur: rapprochement and forgiveness, sudden kinds of intimacy and, if not love, then recognition. The world will remain a cruel one, but cruelty doesn’t always win. Her fiction asks us to pause, to look more carefully so that we do not miss these forms of miracles—those moments that, like us, are present in this world only briefly, glimpsed for an instant, and then gone.