It’s happened: I’ve fallen in love/lust. I think this one might be the real deal. Of all my literary relationships, this one may be the most passionate. In the way that Raymond Carver cuts me with his seemingly simplistic renderings of everyday life and pain. In the way that John Cheever mystifies me by pulling back the curtain on the surreal and absurd world of the wealthy. In the way that Alice Munro awes me with layer after layer of storytelling that starts one way and travels many different routes before ending where you never thought she would. And now, Mary Gaitskill. It’s the way she talks about the things people think but won’t say out loud. It’s the way she digs deeper than the superficial when writing about sexuality. It’s the way she infuses physical relationships with a sadness, a loneliness, a searching.
Mary Gaitskill goes there. In her 1988 short story collection Bad Behavior, she goes there with every story. If you’re familiar with the indie S&M film Secretary starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, then you’re familiar with Mary Gaitskill. “Secretary” is one of nine stories within Bad Behavior brimming with the kind of encounters, fantasies, and relationships to make anyone blush.
In the opening story “Daisy’s Valentine,” Gaitskill shows how one man’s longing for his co-worker is an extension of his drug addiction. Wanting another hit of the titular Daisy is no different than wanting another pill–it’s all the same for him, something else to give him a fix, fill the void. “A Romantic Weekend” is the story of a disastrous affair that falls apart over a weekend of misunderstandings. Told from the perspective of the married man as well as the seemingly pathetic woman he flies with to D.C. in order to engage in a series of demeaning encounters and domination fantasies, the story sets readers up with the expectations that the woman will give in to whatever the man wants, but she does not. By the end of the story she has the power in the relationship and he’s left with the distorted desires and longing.
Longing is at the center of one of Bad Behavior‘s most oddly poignant and disturbingly sad stories, “Something Nice.” In it, middle-aged protagonist Fred visits a brothel while his wife is out of town. The reader quickly learns that this is not a new occurrence for Fred, but once he meets prostitute Lisette (real name Jane), he feels a schoolboy’s crush on her that somehow adds an air of innocence to their encounter. He begins visiting her nightly and ultimately imagines having a relationship with her outside of the brothel. But when he confesses these feelings to her, she quits the brothel and disappears. In the final scene, which takes place a year later, he sees her at a cafe and overhears a mundane conversation she holds with a friend. Gaitskill masterfully stretches the conversation, full of gossip and complaints about Jane’s work at a museum. It is within this painfully monotonous real-world scene that Fred realizes what occurred between them was another job for her. The story closes with Fred slinking out of the cafe without addressing her. Gaitskill makes you feel something for him. She makes his infatuation with Jane feel as real as Humbert Humbert’s infatuation with Lolita–all within the length limitations of a short story.
Perhaps one of the boldest choices Gaitskill makes in her stories is to tell many of her stories through the male viewpoint. This is a move I often envy in others because I tend to veer from it in my own writing. To try and get into the male mind is about as scary a task for a writer as writing about sex. Gaitskill does both. What she is able to do, something that all writers can learn from her, is move beyond male or female and pinpoint the desire, confusion, loneliness, and needs that make us essentially human. Her stories are not cheap erotica, surface-level sexuality. Her stories are about more than the act of sex, they are about the motives and consequences, assumptions and painful realities of sharing something so intimate with another person.