Mary Gaitskill
Mary Gaitskill; drawing by David Levine

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.

From the moment Alison steps off the plane, Gaitskill plays up the old-fashioned literary idea of Paris as at once the great disillusioner and the home of glamour:

I walked with a great mass of people through a cloud of voices, aiming for the baggage claim. I was distracted by a man in a suit coming toward me with a bouquet of roses…. His body was slim and his head was big. Deep furrows in his lower face pulled his small lips into a fleshy beak. His lips made me think of a spider drinking blood with pure blank bliss. Suddenly, he saw me. He stopped, and his beak burst into a beautiful broad smile that transformed him from a spider into a gentleman. “I am René,” he said. “You are for Celesté Agency, no?” Yes, I was. He took one of my bags and handed me his roses. He took my other bag, put it on the floor, and kissed my hand. In a flash, I understood: Seeing me had made him a gentleman and he loved me for it. I liked him, too.

In Paris, and the modeling business, Gaitskill finds a crueler metaphor for sexual power than she found even in midtown brothels, in strip clubs, for her runaways on the street.

The cruelty Alison sees during her two years in Paris comes as a revelation. She watches a photographer shame a fifteen-year-old model into masturbating for the camera. She watches a naked old man crawl on the floor of a sex club, scolded by a dominatrix for pulling on his limp penis. Paris teaches her the value of her beauty; Paris also confirms her suspicion that she is worthless beside that beauty, that she and everyone around her matter only as fleeting, imperfect instances of an erotic ideal. The icy Platonic logic of the modeling business exhilarates her. Alison learns to see shame and beauty as flip sides of the same coin. She watches her agent-lover lose interest, sees him sleep with other women and give them her jobs, and she gets it: these are the rules of the game. Beauty and abjection go hand in hand. When the agent dumps her and pockets the money he owes her, all she can do is go home to the suburbs, enroll in a word-processing course, and pine for the life she has left behind. “That’s poetry,” she tells her sister, after shocking her with a Paris story. “Life and sex and cruelty. Not something you learn in community college.”

Nobody in her family understands how Paris has changed her. Nobody sees that being beautiful, in a place where beauty was all-important, has made her inconsolable:

If [my sister] had put her arm around me then, I would’ve clenched my teeth with contempt. Then, lying next to her warm body was like lying in a hole with a dog…. I wanted her to know that she was a dog, ugly and poor. I wanted all of them to know. I wanted my father to know that he would always be crushed, no matter how hard he pushed.

As soon as she can, she escapes to New York. Here, doing data entry at an advertising agency, she meets Veronica Ross, fifteen years older, fat, the opposite of chic. “In her plaid suit, ruffled blouse, and bow tie, she was like a human cuckoo clock.” But Veronica reads. She is a lover of the arts and a film buff. “Have you spent time in Paris, hon?” Veronica asks the first night they work together. “I thought so. You have a Parisian aura.”

The friendship matters only in retrospect. For years it’s no more than an office acquaintance:

I did not fix Veronica in my mind…. I was not interested in her, but I was curious about her, like I might be curious about an elaborate object. The cuckoo clock sounded the hour; the bird popped out. I listened to her talk about her movies, her six seal-point Siamese cats, and her bisexual boyfriend, Duncan.

Outside work, Alison creates a replica of her Paris life: parties, nightclubs, drugs, alliances of mutual convenience, brief or dimly remembered affairs. Eventually she quits her job and embarks on a second modeling career. At the height of her fame she appears in the video for ZZ Top’s “Legs” (or as Gaitskill puts it, “the comeback effort of a middle-aged trio of overweight guys with big beards”). The decades pass. We understand it’s all downhill from there.

In the meantime, Veronica calls to tell Alison that Duncan, her boyfriend, is dying of AIDS. Veronica knows she must be infected, too. This surprises Alison. It has never occurred to her that Duncan and the frumpy Veronica were actually lovers. Veronica corrects her: “‘We did everything, hon. All the time. It was like Histoire d’O.’ Veronica sat very erect as she said this, and I saw a flash of pride in her wide, alert eyes.” Now, although neither she nor Alison expects it, the two women become friends.

Why? One of Alison’s boyfriends tells her that she’s “sweet and human” for befriending Veronica in her illness. “Most people, when something like that happens, unless it’s a really tight relationship, they run. That’s when you became her friend.” Even at the time, Alison knows there’s more to it than that. “Sometimes,” she says,

I would admit that if she’d tested negative, I would have let the friendship lapse…that duty and pity were all that joined us. I’d admit, too, that she was the only one I could trust not to reject me.

I’m sure she had these thoughts. “She felt sorry for me,” I’d imagine her bitterly telling an imaginary person. “I was a good listener.” Then I imagined her expression draw inward as she considered that no, that was not all there was to it. But the imaginary Veronica did not admit that to the imaginary person.

A quarter of a century later, facing her own illness and death, Alison feels the gap closing between her and this imaginary Veronica. Now that it’s closing, she sees how large it was. Here, at the very moment where Two Girls and so many of Gaitskill’s stories have pulled up short, at the edge of human connection, Veronica makes that connection and plunges straight down, shining the bright light of Alison’s sympathy into the murk of her attachment, probing its insufficiencies.

Alison remembers moments that she withdrew from Veronica when Veronica was alive: She invited Veronica to a New Year’s party, then was embarrassed by her and took her home early. She flinched from a fleck of her saliva. She remembers caressing Veronica’s breastbone when Veronica was dying:

I never should’ve touched her like that and then turned around and left, leaving her chest opened and defenseless against the feelings that might come into it—feelings of love and friendship.

Now that memory darkens against a vision of Veronica at her lover’s deathbed:

I imagine being in a hospital bed, holding my dying, unfaithful lover in my arms. I imagine feeling the beat of his heart, thumping with dumb animal purity. Once, when I was working in Spain, I went to a bullfight, where I saw a gored horse run with its intestines spilling out behind it. It was trying to outrun death by doing what it always did, what always gave it joy, safety, and pride. Not understanding that what had always been good was now futile and worthless, and humiliated by its inability to understand. That’s how I imagine Duncan’s heart. Beating like it always had, working as hard as it could. Not understanding why it was no good. This was why Veronica got into the bed—to comfort this debased heart. To say to it, But you are good. I see. I know. You are good. Even if it doesn’t work.

Nothing prepared Alison to look so deeply. As she puts it, decades too late, “My cruelty had been pointless. My kindness had been pointless.” Neither one was sympathy. Neither could say that the body, faced with death, was worthy of love.

Gaitksill has always been an austere writer. From the beginning, even her admirers wished that she’d broaden her scope, beyond what Michiko Kakutani (in a favorable review of Bad Behavior) called “the narrow emotional bonds of the author’s scummy, downtown world.” Because Gaitskill presents situations that we are used to seeing pathologized in fiction, she has sometimes been called a satirist. But few writers have made less use of dramatic irony. To a rare degree, she takes her characters as she finds them and grants them insight into their own conditions. Even their fantasies are things they tend to understand.

Gaitskill’s work goes against the corrective grain in American fiction, a grain that is deeper and more pervasive now than it was when her first stories appeared. When, in the novel Everything Is Illuminated (2002), Jonathan Safran Foer teaches his Ukrainian friend Alex the meaning of the phrases “common decencies” and “big fucking asshole,” he is acting out a defining impulse of the contemporary novel—to recall us to a set of shared values, the plainer the better. You can hear that impulse in the prose of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1995), with its heroic attempt to drag a hyperliterate, media-saturated vernacular back into the realm of “sobriety,” “sincerity,” and “humility”—moral categories that Wallace appeals to continually and without qualification.

You can see the same impulse molding the hero of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001) from a sex-obsessed literary theorist into a family man; you can see it parodied in the class reunion speeches at the end of Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision (2005) and Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land (2004). When Kunkel’s narrator says “I want to conclude with some vacuous statement we can all agree on,” when Lipsyte’s narrator strings together a litany of garbled platitudes—“Volunteer in your community. Bathe the children in your neighborhood”—the writers are making similar jokes, not about class reunions, but about our desire for uplift, our demand that new novels model a slightly better world than the one we live in.

Gaitskill shares these writers’ interest in the everyday language of moral judgment. Her characters, like theirs, make sense of the world through a jumble of psychobabble, old-fashioned words like pity and compassion, and what Wallace calls the “quilted-sampler clichés” of the recovery movement. But Gaitskill never leaves these abstractions the way she found them. She is always testing them against the complexity of her characters’ inner lives.

Here, for instance, is Gaitskill on “compassion.” Alison tells a man she knows the story of the model forced to masturbate, a girl named Lisa. The man is furious at life for reasons of his own, but:

He has compassion. I get stuck on this for a second. If his compassion comes from the place where he’s clawing himself, is it real? It seems mean to say no. But I wonder. One of the Greek men [a fellow model] looked at Lisa with compassion, too. His look was not about something torn…. He looked like a kind dog might look at a nervous cat. Majestic wet tongue out, rhythmically inhaling the scent of feline. Store info in saliva, lick the chops, swallow it down. Blink soft, merciful eyes.

And on “sentimentality”—Veronica tells a story of being raped. She talked the rapist out of killing her. In the end, she says, “He was very tender.”

Smart people would say she spoke that way about that story because she was trying to take control over it, because she wanted to deny the pain of it, even make herself superior to it. This is probably true. Smart people would also say that sentimentality always indicates a lack of feeling. Maybe this is true, too. But I’m sure she truly thought the rapist was tender. If he’d had a flash of tenderness anywhere in him, a memory of his mother, of himself as a baby, of a toy, she would’ve felt it because she was desperate for it.

And on “narcissism”—Veronica describes her affair with Duncan:

“It sometimes felt like I was something he needed to knock down over and over, and I would always pop back up. He needed that and so did I, the popping back up…. It was a narcissistic game maybe. But still, when you go through that with someone, it can feel like something very profound has happened between you. And it has, actually. That person’s your partner, and there’s honor in it.”

I have quoted Veronica at length to give a sense not just of Gaitskill’s moral preoccupations but of the curious, deadpan authority of her prose. It is one thing to say a writer has made no mistakes—Gaitskill writes as if she hasn’t made any choices. She has, of course. She has been at work on Veronica for more than a decade. It is the best thing she has yet written. At a moment when many of our best novels seem to have been written in a borrowed or restored language, Veronica has the sound of original speech.

This Issue

January 12, 2006