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.