Because They Wanted To

Because They Wanted To

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by Mary Gaitskill

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A New York Times Notable Book

A man tells a story to a woman sitting beside him on a plane, little suspecting what it reveals about his capacity for cruelty and contempt. A callow runaway girl is stranded in a strange city with another woman’s fractiously needy children. An uncomprehending father helplessly lashes out at the daughter he both loves

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A New York Times Notable Book

A man tells a story to a woman sitting beside him on a plane, little suspecting what it reveals about his capacity for cruelty and contempt. A callow runaway girl is stranded in a strange city with another woman’s fractiously needy children. An uncomprehending father helplessly lashes out at the daughter he both loves and resents. In these raw, startling, and incandescently lovely stories, the author of Veronica yields twelve indelible portraits of people struggling with the disparity between what they want and what they know. Because They Wanted To is further evidence that Gaitskill is one of the fiercest, funniest, and most subversively compassionate writers at work today.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In "The Dentist," a story about a magazine writer's sexual infatuation with her bland, middle-aged dentist, a billboard for Obsession perfume looms over the protagonist's neighborhood, projecting a "strange arrested sensuality of unsatisfied want." Like that billboard, the nine stories in Gaitskill's third book (after the novel, Two Girls, Fat and Thin) hold a mirror up to a 30-something zeitgeist of emotional dysfunction, chronicling people paralyzed by unappeasable desires and trapped by abusive families and relationships. The landscape is a familiar one-of support groups and public health clinics, funky neighborhoods in the Pacific Northwest and lower Manhattan inhabited by writers, musicians and sex workers. With her crisp prose and withering eye for detail, Gaitskill invests these scenes with psychological vividness and desolate poignancy. The title story is a portrait of a resilient 16-year-old who runs away from home in the wake of her parent's divorce and takes a job in Vancouver babysitting for a financially desperate mother of three. The disgruntled protagonist of the opening story, "Tiny, Smiling Daddy," disturbed that his estranged lesbian daughter has published a self-help essay about him in a national magazine, ponders the divide between parents and children. In the four-part final story, "The Wrong Thing," a 39-year-old poetry teacher tries to remain stoic in the face of a series of erotic but loveless flings. It's telling that Gaitskill's title is an unfinished sentence, for the theme that binds these stories together is an emotional modality shared by a cast of unhappy people, whose sordid fantasy lives and small gestures of compassion allow them to keep at bay the meaninglessness and despair of the everyday. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Many of the stories in Gaitskill's new collection conform to the same structure, shifting between present and memory, depicting the past catching up to her characters. In "The Girl on the Plane," a man meets a woman who resembles a college classmate, and their conversation elicits in his mind the sordid details of his role in a drunken gang-rape. In "Tiny, Smiling Daddy," a young woman writes about her father for Self. While driving to purchase the magazine, the father reflects on her childhood. "Orchid" details the reunion of two college roommates-Margot, a lesbian, and Patrick, a Lothario-and how smoldering memories can blaze when provoked. Gaitskill's characters thrive on the frontiers of sexual identity, where they search for love that can coexist with the traumatic histories that burden them, and the stories they inhabit reflect their complexity-opting for simple survival over reductive resolution. Often, for Gaitskill, the striking of a single sustained note of self-knowledge is enough to keep a chorus of insoluble problems at bay. Recommended.-Adam Mazmanian, "Library Journal"
Reminiscent of the ugly-beautiful denizens of a Calvin Klein ad, the happy-sad and aggressively passive roughnecks in Mary Gaitskill's second collection of short stories embody the trendier modalities of modern romance. These masochist girls and sadist boys inhabit an ambivalent time, with feelings that invariably embody their sarcastic opposites. Gaitskill's touchy flock roams the urban landscape like heat-seeking misfits. A magazine article, casual meeting with a former lover or visit to the dentist's office are enough to send them hurtling down Memory Lane's grim, gray passage.

Gaitskill has a thing about female sex workers; several of her female characters have done time either as strippers or hookers and wear their resumés defiantly. Casually bisexual, they get off on the cutting edge of sexual politics, often to the dismay of fathers and boyfriends. In Tiny, Smiling Daddy a father seethes over his lesbian daughter's outing of their emotional problems in the pages of Self magazine. Words sting and bruise in Because They Wanted To (as slack a title as you could ask for). But all this verbal assault and battery makes for a gloomy Starbucks afternoon.

A transgressive writer in realist clothing, Gaitskill specializes in charged emotional scenes delivered with affectless precision. Her stories drift with a vague forward momentum, occasionally circling in upon themselves to exhale a memory. Since Gaitskill focuses on her characters' emotional and sexual lives, they come off as skeletal, attenuated and one-dimensional. They seek something they wouldn't recognize if it slapped them on the ass. "I told her I was sick of categories like butch bottom and femme top or vice versa," says 39-year-old Susan in The Wrong Thing, the last and longest of these nine unsentimental journeys. "I said I was looking for something more genuine, although I didn't know yet what it was. She said she thought she probably was too." Ah, commitment.

Gaitskill's universe is not a laugh riot. It's a stark place reduced to sociosexual signifiers such as the occasional nipple ring or awkwardly wielded rubber cock. It's all au courant, and more than a little sad. "It was fun to say that I liked something refined and cruel," says Susan in The Wrong Thing "but under the fun was an impatient yank of boredom and under that was indignation and pain." Love hurts indeed. -- Richard Gehr

Kirkus Reviews
Gaitskill's second collection is a return to the themes of her first, Bad Behavior (1988): Bad girls misbehave and end up as profiles in sexual pathology. For all their naughty sex talk, there's very little pleasure—Gaitskill's women are too brittle and nervous, forever exhausted by their unusual tastes, to take much relish in life.

The familial origins of her troubled women are well illustrated in "Tiny, Smiling Daddy," a portrait of a father disturbed by the course of his daughter's life, from sweet, beautiful girl to snarling teen and then to grown-up lesbian rehashing their relationship in a national magazine. A male perspective in two stories is equally grim: The twentysomething fellow who returns to Iowa to visit his injured mother uses the occasion to manipulate his girlfriend back in San Francisco; more troubling is the drunken confession by a middle-aged businessman on an airplane to his shocked female seatmate—as a teenager he participated in a gang rape. Quite a few pieces concern women in their late 30s, often bisexual, who seem incapable of maintaining relationships. The writer in "The Dentist" becomes obsessed with seducing her dumpy dentist, a man made uncomfortable by her sexual innuendos. In "The Wrong Thing," the narrator is, at first, dismayed by a younger man reluctant to have sex with her and retreats into an affair with a woman who likes only S&M role- playing. "The Blanket" explores a similar notion: An older woman energizes her younger lover by exploring their fantasies. The finest piece is "Orchid," the discussions of two college housemates who hook up years later in Seattle and seem to prove that those in the so-called helping professions—she's a social worker, he's a psychopharmacologist—are usually in need of much help themselves.

Gaitskill continues to explore the margins of human sexuality in stories distinguished by their strange terrain rather than by their exceptional skill.

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Simon & Schuster
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5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

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