Bookish Birthdays: Mary Gaitskill

11th Nov 2011

Bookish Birthdays: Mary Gaitskill
When I first came across Mary Gaitskill I had just moved to the big city, was working opposite a sex shop in Soho, and was constantly watching little dramas happen out on the street.

Reading Mary Gaitskill in public makes you feel you’re doing something you shouldn’t be. Not because she is offensive or unduly erotic (although at times she can be both), but because her sentences have a way of stripping the clothes off people and exposing them for who they are; a bunch of incapables, desperately searching for intimacy but getting caught up in kink and smut along the way.

I read all her books back to back, and then again. And for a few weeks I walked around in a Gaitskillian stupor, judging everyone I met by her wry yet hopeful standards.

Of course, London in 2007 was a far cry from New York in the eighties, and knowing that people are just more sensible these days made me nostalgic for a time when it was okay to be openly inept, perverse and longing.

Gaitskill’s first collection of short stories, Bad Behaviour, came out in 1988. Her characters were emotionally tangled, intelligent, promiscuous and downbeat.

They seemed forever backlit by a Blondie soundtrack. In Bad Behavior there is mild drug abuse and a part-time prostitute, a masochist and a sociopath who escape together for a disastrous night of sexual friction, and a temp who gets spanked by her boss before getting a fat cheque to stay quiet.

Reading Mary Gaitskill in public makes you feel you’re doing something you shouldn’t be. Not because she is offensive or unduly erotic (although at times she can be both), but because her sentences have a way of stripping the clothes off people and exposing them for who they are.This last story – Secretary’ – was later made into a film with Maggie Gyllenhaal. But in nearly every interview I have read, Mary Gaitskill is less than impressed, calling the adaptation a ‘Pretty Woman’ version.

In 1991 Gaitskill published Two Girls, Fat and Thin. A novel this time, the book is a great look at self-image and vulnerability, as well as a take on writer/guru Ayn Rand and her creepy cult followers.

Then came a second collection of stories, Because They Wanted To. I’ve gone through a few copies of this, each succumbing to tough love. In ‘Tiny Smiling Daddy a father tries to come to terms with his daughter’s sexuality while waiting for his wife to bring the car back from the mall.

In ‘The Girl on the Plane a middle-aged man admits rape to a strange woman, and in Kiss and Tell a failed scriptwriter takes revenge on his best friend and one-time-lover who not only becomes a famous actress, but also turns gay.

There are no hearts and flowers in Gaitskill’s stories. She has no time for sentiment or self-pity. She describes raw details in perfect sentences, with an honestly and originality that is at times awesome and at others intense.

Since Because They Wanted To, Mary Gaitskill has published another novel, Veronica. It’s about a used-up yet still-beautiful model who befriends a drastically uncool woman dying of AIDS. It’s at once grotesque, fragile, electrifying and sad, and earned her the National Book Award, rightly so.

And in 2009, Gaitskill published her last book, a collection of stories called Don’t Cry. It’s a long way from Bad Behavior; mature, reflective and a step apart from the sexual politics that characterized her earlier work.

The most moving story is about two women, one recently widowed, who travel to Addis Ababa to try to adopt a kid. Here is what the jacket copy has to say: ‘Don’t Cry shows us how our social conscience has evolved while basic truths – “ the crude cinder blocks of male and female down in the basement, holding up the house” as one character puts it – remain unchanged.’ Couldn’t have said it better.

Read any interview with Mary Gaitskill these days, and she seems far removed from her old self; a tiny waif with a severe bob and large glasses who seemed more like one of her own characters than any other fiction writer I can think of.

Now she is calmer, and dare I say it, more conservative? But as her latest book proves, she is still an incredible writer. And as she turns 57, we can only hope she is busy at her desk, glasses on, banging out something new.

I wanted to pick out some sentences as a kind of Gaitskill-shrine, but I don’t want to gush. So instead I’ll just end with this, which is up there with the best opening sentences ever:

Today the clerk in the fancy deli next door asked me how I was, and I said “I have deep longings that will never be satisfied.” I go in there all the time, so I thought it was okay. But she frowned slightly and said “Is it the weather that does it to you?” “No,” I said, “it’s just my personality.”

photo © Hillary Harvey


  • Alex Herod says:

    Thanks so much for this, Jen! When pay day arrives, i’ll be buying a job lot of the books you’ve mentioned 🙂

  • Jess says:

    I just finished Two Girls- wow! Her writing is just extroridnary, so beautiful and yet flows so well, challenging and yet and the same time so accessible! I enjoyed it emmensly, even though it’s a rather, shall we say, odd book?
    One thing though, there was a moment towards the end where I thought she was going to take the book in a very different direction as was reading it and that made me very excited, and then she didn’t, and I was almost dissappointed by that, but I don’t know if that’s because in my reading I see so many ‘twists’ you almost expect them.
    I think it’ll be a while before I attempt another of hers as now I feel like I want to read lots of lovely fluff about love and kittens, but thank you so much for this as it’s introduced me to a whole new writer!

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Fantastic, thanks for reporting back, I’m so pleased you enjoyed it Jess. I absolutely love Gaitskill, the writing is just beyond beautiful, always gives me loads to think about and as you said on Twitter I’m sure there would be so much to say about it at a book club! I am intrigued as to what direction to you thought the book was going to go in, remind me next time we meet – we’ll have to have a proper natter about it!