Margin Walking

Mary Gaitskill

Because They Wanted To: Stories

Simon & Schuster

MARY GAITSKILL MADE a name for herself charting the shoddy S/M scenarios of young, unstrung New Yorkers, which is not why she reminds me of Henry James. Mary Gaitskill reminds me of Henry James because she will take a paragraph to decipher the distinct layers of meaning behind a man's quick sneer (and another to unravel his startled eyes, as they slide into tender condescension, etc.). Her characters, while wearing and owning substantially less than James's gowned and bejeweled heiresses, reach, like them, for things beyond their ken and then wake up into nightmares of banal compromise. And her portraits, while colored by the politics of sex roles, sex work, and work in general, tend to be, like James's, primarily emotional landscapes.

Gaitskill's men and women, it should be said, do not in any form resemble James's innocents abroad. They are wary, cruel, experienced. Yet there is a sense that they are hoping to be healed of their cynicism, a sense that once upon a time they had not been quite so wounded. I am not talking about childhood innocence--Gaitskill's novel Two Girls Fat and Thin gleefully trashed that notion, and rightly so. I'm thinking instead of a passage from Gaitskill's new short-story collection Because They Wanted To, in which a woman remembers a picture of an old lover as a baby: "He rose eagerly out of his father's arms.... Everything in him went up and outward in a bright, excited rush. In its raw form, what he'd had was beautiful and good."

Of course, Gaitskill has the woman complicate the thought: "But it hadn't helped him. Probably he'd never even known it was there." This fresh fire isn't innocence; it's simply energy, light. Amongst Gaitskill's characters, most of whom were molested, abandoned, or assaulted as children, this light becomes something to barter for--or a weapon with which to claim--attention, security, and the fitful grace of other people's light. The older men in these stories tend to be repentant thieves, who once "went through girls like they were nothing." The women are mostly trying to negotiate (a truce?) with the role of the "nothing." Everybody's miserable. Everybody's guilty. And no one remembers what has been lost: They've long been, as one man describes himself, "extended in darkness, reaching for something without knowing what it was."

There's a certain poignant courage to Gaitskill's people, as they keep attempting to uncover an explanatory story for their pain--if not a cessation of it--through self-analysis, sex, S/M, therapy. Against the complex knots of emotion that Gaitskill teases out of a single interchange, most of these found answers make about as much sense as cutting out a woman's womb to prevent hysteria: Gaitskill mocks psychotherapy in particular as a clumsy, remedial, and far from benign science. The whole notion of "talking it out" takes a beating here; indeed, there's such a distance between what people are feeling and what they manage to say that it seems Gaitskill is describing, precisely and finely, language's failure to describe.

Nor is sexual healing a more realizable option. Unlike Bad Behavior, Gaitskill's first collection, Because They Wanted To de-centers the characters' ungainly sexual exchanges until they're merely another aspect of abortive dialogue. It's interesting that Gaitskill sets many of these stories in San Francisco, rather than the New York of her previous books: Amidst these SF pro-sex dykes, rock boys, and aging radicals, fucking is just another ride in the amusement park. At the same time, sex equals identity (i.e., "butch bottom"), so the role-playing game carries great consequence. This juxtaposition, especially in the book's last four, interconnected stories, leaves sex at once overwrought and static, as if the characters are doomed to re-enact the only play they know: "I felt myself go toward her," says one woman, "in a reflexive longing undercut by the exhaustion that often accompanies old reflexes."

Such characters may seem like extreme types, and it's clear Gaitskill likes to hang out on the margins. Yet she does so, I think, for the same reason she meticulously details (sometimes irritatingly so!) shifting categories of feeling: Because, whether for runaways or for tense suburban parents, emotional life is often extreme, scary, and intricate. Gaitskill's stories seldom offer resolutions. There's a comfort to be found in her acknowledgement of limitless human sensitivity, and an implied challenge too, that we take responsibility for our seemingly limitless insensitivity; we are far from innocent in our woundedness. Still, Gaitskill saves her most generous gift (and joke?) until the last sentence of Because They Wanted To, when readers realize that they--along with all these extended, searching characters--may yet be in the dark, but they're hardly alone.

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