Mary Gaitskill was born in 1954 and raised in the suburbs of Detroit. At fifteen she ran away from home, supporting herself in Toronto and the Bay Area as a street vendor, office clerk, and stripper. After returning to her family, she enrolled in a community college, then the University of Michigan. In 1981 she moved to New York. Before her first collection of stories, Bad Behavior, was published in 1988, her jobs included bookstore clerk, receptionist, and proofreader. She made extra money as a freelance journalist and as a prostitute.1
Variations of these early biographical facts appear throughout Gaitskill’s fiction. Her work is built on variation, recombination. Her books work out a personal mythology; as in any other mythology, the basic elements stay the same. So for instance the father who molests his daughter in Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991) broods in the same way, in what may as well be the same recliner, as the father who rejects his daughter for being a lesbian in the story “Tiny Smiling Daddy,” from Gaitskill’s second collection, Because They Wanted To (1997). Both men are in the habit of turning up their nostrils and stroking their inner nose-hairs.
These fathers are not the same character; they are different aspects of a single household god. And they inhabit the same myth, a myth at the root of Gaitskill’s work: cruel or kind, the father dominates his wife and daughters. He is lonely and afraid of the world outside his house, and he forces his loneliness on them. At home the women exist to prop him up. They rub his feet and neck. They listen to his stories of perfidy at the office; they accept his reactionary views as their own. They listen to him talk about his favorite old records when nobody else will:
He didn’t realize his signals could not be heard, that the men [from his office] were looking at him strangely. Or maybe he did realize but didn’t know what else to do but keep signaling. Eventually, he gave up, and there were few visitors. He was just by himself, trying to keep his secret and tender feelings alive through these same old songs.
(Veronica, p. 16)
The favorite daughter runs away from home. She runs away because she is the favorite daughter. She can’t bear the weight of the father’s loneliness, a loneliness that infects her whole family. Meanwhile her sister hunkers down. She retreats into her bedroom and eats herself into obesity.
The runaway becomes a stripper, she turns tricks, she models—the point is, she discovers her sexual power. In Gaitskill’s work, that’s what running away means. Even though the narrator of “Secretary” (in Bad Behavior) comes home to her family every day after work, once she starts having sex with her boss she’s living on another planet. And it doesn’t matter that sex, in “Secretary,” consists of getting insulted, spanked, and masturbated on. For Gaitskill’s heroines even humiliating sex—especially humiliating sex, apart from rape—means entering into a secret pact. That pact brings Gaitskill’s heroines to life; it awakens them to a hurt isolation that they have only vaguely intuited before:
He began spanking me as I said [the word] “referring.” The funny thing was, I wasn’t even surprised. I actually kept reading the letter, although my understanding of it was not very clear. I began crying on it, which blurred the ink. The word “humiliation” came into my mind with such force that it effectively blocked all other words. Further, I felt that this concept had actually been a major force in my life for quite a while.
(“Secretary,” p. 140)
When the runaway returns home, her sexual power sets her apart. The father senses this and grieves for his lost daughter. The fat sister senses it, too. In some of Gaitskill’s stories, she resents the runaway. In others, she comforts her. She looks at the runaway and sees a damaged soul, while the runaway stares back full of pity and dread—and sentimental admiration, because the fat sister has stayed put and survived.
“Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience,” Diane Arbus once wrote. “Freaks were born with their trauma.” The trauma, according to this attitude, is to be ugly. It is to have loneliness forced on you without hope of escape. This is a world view that Gaitskill understands. Her beautiful waifs are fascinated, as Arbus was, by the ugly—the fat, the ill, the retarded. Like Arbus, they associate ugliness with nobility of spirit. “I could tell you were very strong,” says the thin woman to the fat woman at the end of Two Girls, “and I wondered how you got to be that way.”
Where does strength come from, Gaitskill forces her characters to ask, if not from sex? If not from beauty?
American novelists tend not to dwell on the connection between beauty and power. The sexual predicament of the aging or ugly woman—a central tragedy of French fiction, for example—seems small to us. We have no Colette, no Marguerite Duras, no Jean Rhys. (Although she writes in English, the Rhys of Good Morning, Midnight is quintessentially Parisian.)2
Among American novelists of her generation, especially women novelists, Gaitskill is rare in placing eroticism at the center of her work. She insists that this bias accurately reflects the world we live in. “Life,” she has written, “is dirtier than porn.” Part of what makes life dirty—shameful and exciting—is our hunger for beauty as a hedge against pain and mortality. As Gaitskill once put it in an interview:
I think people know that pain is part of our nature…. But capitalism in this country is focused on the idea 1) that life can and should be absolutely beautiful; 2) that beauty can be defined according to an ironclad objective standard; 3) that beauty can be held onto forever if only you do the right things perfectly enough; and 4) that it can be purchased. I don’t only mean physical, personal beauty, but that is a good enough example and metaphor.3
The two main women in Gaitskill’s central myth, the beauty and the fat woman, are not always literally sisters. The two girls in Two Girls, Fat and Thin never meet until adulthood, although they spend their childhoods crossing paths with versions of each other. Alison Owen, the narrator of Veronica, only meets the title character in the twilight of her great sexual adventure. These women are related in the sense that each implies the existence of the mythological other, the way youth implies the existence of old age or privilege the existence of poverty.
The main action of Veronica unfolds over the course of a long walk. The walker, Alison Owen, is a former model, now in her late forties. She is, in her own words, “ugly and sick.” She has advanced hepatitis. She suffers chronic pain from the injury to her arm that ended her modeling career. She also suffers from insomnia. She walks through a park in Marin County to tire herself out, and as she walks she dreams:
When I wake, I’m mad at not sleeping, and that makes me mad at everything. My mind yells insults as my body walks itself around. Dream images rise up and crash down, huge, then gone, huge, gone.
Alison’s dreams are her memories. She has no other dreams left. As she sardonically puts it, half to a friend, half to herself: “‘My dream is being able to sleep and to stop my arm from hurting.’ To stop traveling through the endless rooms that don’t have music or people in them anymore.”
The word dream recurs throughout Veronica. Dream, beauty, shame, goodness, cruelty, love, music, sex, sky, God, death—Gaitskill is drawn to these words as mysteries, equally drawn to the mysteries of words like cunt, asshole, and turd. At the beginning of the novel, a man dives into water like a “public toilet,” “burying his face in it like he’s trying to eat it out…regardless of the rain or turds”; although we never see him again, this conflation of dirt and sex runs and develops through the book. Even such random-seeming details evolve like musical figures (or figures on a contact sheet: an image that repeats like a refrain). The very names of Gaitskill’s characters—Allie, Alain, Alana, John, Joanna, André, Andrea, two separate Dorotheas, two Sheilas—suggest variations on a theme.
Gaitskill’s fiction has always worked this way, but never has pattern done so much of the work of plot. The novel veers between past and present. Minor characters flash into life and vanish. This is not so much a flaw, as certain reviewers have suggested, as it is a technique. The drama is in Alison’s remembering—and underneath the remembering, underneath the disjunctions and repetitions, the steady, imperceptible movement toward atonement. Only near the end of the novel do we realize that we are reading a confession.
In the late Seventies, sixteen-year-old Alison runs away from the usual father, the usual suburban home, the usual loneliness. She sells flowers on the street in San Francisco. One night she sells a flower to a man who gives her his card. He claims to be an agent looking for models, “which everybody knew meant stripper or whore.” Alison goes to his apartment anyway.
She has her picture taken—and even before she goes to bed with him, the sex of it has her hooked:
I didn’t know how to pose, but it didn’t matter; the music was like a big red flower you could disappear into. The sweetness of it was a complicated burst of little tastes, but under that was a big broad muscle of sound. It was like the deep feeling of dick inside and the tiny sparkling feelings outside on the clit…. Far away, my dad was playing songs for men who thought he was crazy. I was going to be a model and make money walking around inside songs everybody knew.
The agent is, of course, a fraud. But the photographer submits his pictures of Alison to a magazine contest. She wins, and finds herself on a plane to Paris, under contract with a powerful Parisian agent—a real one. In no time, she has become his mistress.
This isn’t the first time Gaitskill has thrust one of her life-size suburban girls into a larger-than-life milieu. In Two Girls, a make-believe version of Ayn Rand swept into poor Dorothy Footie’s life and introduced her to Manhattan. It’s no accident that Alison and Dorothy sit down to the same champagne breakfast with their new lovers. They are rehearsing the same event. It happens in the stories too, on a smaller scale: Gaitskill offers her characters a vision of glamour, whether it’s represented by the art world, or a rock band, or the beauty of a boy’s face, and they never quite recover from the sight.
See Charles Bock, Interview with Mary Gaitskill, Mississippi Review, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Fall 1999).↩
Vivian Gornick has illuminated these writers and this subject for me in her study The End of the Novel of Love (Beacon, 1997), and her recent essay on Colette, "Love with a Capital L," from the anthology Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books they Love, edited by Anne Fadiman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).↩
Rick Moody and Mary Gaitskill, "Sex, Capitalism and Antidepressants," Salon, August 14, 2000, www.salon .com/books/feature/2000/08/14/moody_gaitskill.↩
See Charles Bock, Interview with Mary Gaitskill, Mississippi Review, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Fall 1999).↩
Vivian Gornick has illuminated these writers and this subject for me in her study The End of the Novel of Love (Beacon, 1997), and her recent essay on Colette, “Love with a Capital L,” from the anthology Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books they Love, edited by Anne Fadiman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).↩
Rick Moody and Mary Gaitskill, “Sex, Capitalism and Antidepressants,” Salon, August 14, 2000, www.salon .com/books/feature/2000/08/14/moody_gaitskill.↩