Some writers presume to outwit their readers; others assume that their readers will try to outwit them, so they engage in preemptive maneuvers. But Mary Gaitskill does neither. She avoids bringing any such antagonism into her writing and asks her readers to be as compassionate and empathetic as possible. She doesn’t assume that her readers will show compassion; that would be far too sentimental. Instead, she gives them little choice. In her writing, Gaitskill uses compassion as a conduit for interpretation. “If you allow it,” she writes, in the conclusion of an essay about erotic photography, “seeing [the artist’s] deep presence can make you feel that way-down part of yourself, the part that hungers for such vulnerability and intensity.” Such language—if you allow it—is an invitation to open our hearts to what we might consider beautiful, and it permeates her new collection of essays, Somebody With a Little Hammer. The rest, of course, is up to us.
Indeed, Gaitskill isn’t particularly concerned with being right or with offering any kind of tidy resolution to the ethical and intellectual quandaries that she recounts. When she is righteous, it’s usually for a moral reason, like a call for practical thinking (as in her response to Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Bitch and its self-loathing brand of feminism) or for respecting the dignity of others (as in her response to how we treat the wives of unfaithful politicians). Mostly, she returns again and again to the idea of reading—and writing—with curiosity and compassion.
“Lost Cat,” a 48-page essay that originally appeared in Granta in 2009, has been described as the emotional centerpiece of Somebody With a Little Hammer. The essay weaves together the story of Gattino, Gaitskill’s lost cat; the death of her father; and the stilted time that she spent with three children from the Fresh Air Fund, an organization that gives low-income New York City youth a summer camp–like experience with host families upstate. It’s a memoir about loss, but the nature of that loss is complex. Instead of a march toward an easily distilled, tweetable life lesson, the essay captures how it feels when various experiences of loss and grief mix and compound into something heavier than their sum. Gaitskill’s search for Gattino turns into an obsession that begins to outweigh the loss of a cat alone; mourning her father’s death means considering the troubled relationship they had during his life; and her relationship with the three children is marked by an inability to communicate across the structures of race and class that isolate them from each other. In the end, Gaitskill doesn’t arrive at a profound clarity. Yet she writes her experiences down anyway.
The essay is an illumination, not an explanation—like grief, these dynamics of love distorted by power aren’t easily resolved. Considering the loved ones she has lost and her own self-declared propensity to love too much, Gaitskill writes: “I once read a Chekhov story that described a minor character as ‘trying to snatch from life more than it can give’: maybe I have turned into such a person, unable to accept what is given, always trying to tear things up in order to find what is ‘real,’ even when I don’t know what ‘real’ is, unable to maintain the respect, the dignity of not asking too much or even looking too closely at the workings of the heart, which, no matter how you look, can never be fully seen or understood…. Then I think, But life can give a lot. If you can’t see inside the heart no matter how you look, then why not look? Why not see as much as you can?” At the end of “Lost Cat,” we are left only with the weight of her specific grief—and, like Gaitskill herself, we’re not offered much of a way to understand it.