For many readers, Mary Gaitskill is a writer whose image precedes her work. Possibly you’ve seen Secretary; possibly you’ve just read the magazine profiles that pop up every time she has a new book out. The word those profile writers love to assign her is “dark.” New York magazine once even went so far as to call her a “downtown princess of darkness.” So far as one can tell, this word is used because her stories and novels (Bad Behavior, Veronica) are so often about people who can be said, in some way, to have chosen the way they suffer in life, and even to find some kind of fulfillment in that suffering. In America, where every life is supposed to be underwritten by the pursuit of happiness, Gaitskill’s preoccupations are thought perverse and depressing by default.
Well, look closer: a new collection of Gaitskill’s prose gives us a writer best described as positively playful. In Somebody with a Little Hammer, which collects essays that have been published elsewhere, we get a writer so far from self-serious that she even jokes about her own brooding image. In a takedown of Gone Girl included in this collection, she relates her experience reading the book on a long rail journey: “By the time the train ride was over, I felt I was reading something truly sick and dark,” she quips, “and in case you don’t know, I’m supposedly sick and dark.”
This piece, which originally appeared in Bookforum, is one of the more revealing things Gaitskill has ever written, although it isn’t in the least autobiographical. It reveals instead a key distinction between the way Gaitskill thinks a book should work and the way a writer like Gillian Flynn thinks it should work. Gaitskill concedes that the novel is clever. She sees its cold, calculating anti-heroine, Amy, as powerfully hooking into an older idea that women are “filthy, vicious idiots” who “claw at each other/bond over who is doing it best.” Yet that formulation of subjectivity bothers Gaitskill. She does not like the way the character reduces to these violent, controlling impulses. It doesn’t fit her idea of the world, and more to the point it seems a little dangerous. “[T]his book seems a little too enamored with Amy’s view of the world, and misuses its power in something like the way its protagonist misuses hers,” Gaitskill concludes.
To someone accustomed to Gaitskill’s “dark” image, this moralist’s objection to Gone Girl might seem a little incongruous. But to a more careful reader, it’s of a piece with the strong empathetic bent that has always guided her depictions of allegedly sick people. The power of her work has always derived from the small element of humanity she finds in her characters’ Bad Behavior.
In nonfiction Gaitskill proves a very effective analyst of her own impulses. In this collection is her 1994 Harper’s essay “On Not Being a Victim.” (Here it has been wordily retitled “On ‘Date Rape,’ ‘Victim Culture’ and Personal Responsibility.”) In it, Gaitskill describes a nonconsensual sexual experience that she says she described for years as a rape before coming to the conclusion that the word did not capture the complexity of the experience. It certainly was the case, she writes, that she hadn’t wanted to have sex, but her experience of the world as governed by social codes had taught her that her own desires were less important than some imagined rules. “I didn’t know what to do in a situation where no rules obtained and that required me to speak up on my own behalf,” Gaitskill writes. “I had never been taught that my behalf mattered.”
This qualified, considered view of difficult questions means that Gaitskill sacrifices the propulsive force of the firebrand for the more unsettled role of the essayist. The result is that it’s much more difficult to forget the insights that she comes to. By tethering herself to the complexities of human experience, Gaitskill gets a lot more mileage out of her subject that a writer of lesser intelligence does.
Put together here, all her essays do seem to be making a similar point: what looks like one kind of humanity, from a distance, is actually something more internally conflicted, more lost to itself. In a piece about the film version of her short story, Secretary, Gaitskill finds herself objecting to the way that her main character’s ambivalence was written out of the story. In a piece about Linda Lovelace, the star of the 1970s pornographic epic Deep Throat, she is concerned that all readings of the woman, who in her lifetime was both a porn star and an anti-pornography crusader, fail to embrace the notion that she could have had contradictory feelings about the whole thing. For example, of a memoir Lovelace once wrote about her allegedly abusive relationship, Gaitskill writes: “I imagined that Lovelace simply lacked the confidence to describe what she did and felt in a nuanced way, and that the thing was very, very nuanced and contradictory. ” And come to think of it, “very, very nuanced and contradictory” is probably a better way to describe Gaitskill than “dark.” But that, of course, doesn’t make for such a romantic headline.