Mary Gaitskill would like to make a revision.
We’re standing in her Williamsburg kitchen, attached to an entryway lined with bookshelves, clay masks and other artwork. She’s offered me tea ― mint or lemon ginger ― and has just remembered that there’s a third variety available, Earl Grey.
Her tone is tentative, not due to nerves, it seems, but a desire to be as accurate as possible. I assure her that mint is fine, and we sit down to talk about her essay collection, Somebody With a Little Hammer.
This aversion to hasty conclusions is what makes her essay-writing resonate; in her explorations of music, literature, politics and rape culture she allows space for her own subjective impressions to shift shape. She references scrapped earlier drafts and, in many cases, winds up contradicting her initial argument, realizing her true beliefs through writing.
The essays are revealing of a gentler side of Gaitskill, one that even her ardent admirers ― that is, most women who count themselves bookish and subversive ― seem not to embrace. Since the release of her 1988 collection Bad Behavior, stories centered on the lives of sex workers, sadomasochists and victims of off-kilter power dynamics, she’s earned a reputation as raw and enterprising.
In her story “Secretary” (which was later adapted into a movie starring Maggie Gyllenhaal), a woman accepts a check from her former boss, at a job she left because he repeatedly asked to spank her, and, intimidated by his more powerful position, she complied. In a story from a later collection, “The Girl on the Plane,” a man confesses a violent act to his attractive seatmate, who is mortified by his story. In yet another, “The Nice Restaurant,” a couple talks obliquely about their fetishes over dinner, and the woman learns that her boyfriend once slept with his maid, who she believes was cornered into the encounter even if she aired consent.
“Even if she’s not technically being raped, if she says ‘no,’ what’s going to happen? Is she going to lose her job? It’s a situation that just on the face of it is wrong,” Gaitskill said. “I think it’s a bad thing. I think maybe another word should be invented. I think there are a lot of really bad things that people can do sexually that are not rape.”
In her nonfiction writing, Gaitskill is able to communicate this idea more clearly than in her short stories, which by nature are more emotional, and interpretable. In explaining the difference between essay writing and story writing, she said, “It’s usually just a very clear-cut thing. This is what I was to describe, this is what I think about it, this is what I feel about it, this is the argument that I’m trying to put forward. [...] I guess I think that essay writing is a far more rational process. And I find it easier, honestly.”
In her 1995 essay “The Trouble With Following the Rules,” anthologized in her new collection, Gaitskill writes about a similar scenario that she was subjected to herself ― one that she describes as emotionally wrecking, even if it couldn’t legally be categorized as rape. She had sex with a man out of fear of saying no, but suspected that if she had, he would have eventually backed off.
“The thing that was confusing about that ― still ― is I just don’t know what would have happened. [...] My guess is that he would have been disgruntled, and been like, ‘aw, man.’ I think he would have tried to make me feel bad, but I don’t think he would have physically assaulted me,” she said.
So, she wrote the ‘95 essay to explore the nuances of sexual power imbalances. “It seemed like something that needed to be said,” Gaitskill explained. “Because people were describing things that in my mind weren’t very simple in simplistic terms.”
If there’s anything that unites the essays in her collection ― which include a reflection on her lost cat, an homage to Nabokov and the various book jackets that decorate his opus Lolita, and a takedown of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl ― it’s an allergy to “simplistic terms.” In her new collection, Gaitskill repeatedly praises the mysterious, and bristles at blunt, straightforward claims.
She celebrates Nicholson Baker’s “chaotic,” pornographic novel The Fermata, over its “witty, pleasant” precursor, Vox. Her biggest complaint about Flynn’s best-selling thriller is the “chirpy” narration of both protagonists, which she found to be “disturbing” in a way that the author might not have intended.
“It’s super-calculating. It’s mask-like,” she said. “And I do see it a lot. I see it in social discourse, I see it in a lot of contemporary writing. People are summed up like that, and it’s based on some gesture that they made or their tone of voice, or age. A combination of their age, their appearance and some gesture that they made. Bang, that’s it. And there’s nothing else. And it’s assumed that everybody knows exactly what those things mean.”
This, Gaitskill says, is one of the reasons she’s stayed off social media. She considered signing up for Twitter when the platform started growing in popularity, around 2011, an emotionally fraught period for her personally. “I thought it would just be positively dangerous for me to get on Twitter at night, when I’ve had a little too much to drink, and start expressing myself,” she said. “It’s one thing to do that with somebody who you’re looking at, and who may think you’re a drunken idiot or an unstable person, but at least you’re looking at that person. With Twitter it’s like, you don’t even see who they are.”
She does see the value in Twitter or Facebook for publicizing things like political rallies, and is still considering signing up for that reason.
On the topic of snap judgements and obfuscated identities, Gaitskill steered our conversation toward politics. Her essays include comments about John McCain, and Sarah Palin’s conduct on the 2008 campaign trail, which she saw as cloying and “sadistic.”
“Sarah Palin looked so terrifying to me,” Gaitskill said. “It looks a little naive in a way. She seems almost a little cartoonish in comparison with what’s happening [now].”
Still, she maintains that Palin terrifies her — due to her “aggressively charming voice,” a sheeny presentation that repeatedly unnerves Gaitskill, no matter what form it takes.
In “Remain in Light,” her essay in praise of the Talking Heads album of the same name, she writes about the rigid social order of junior high school and how the fluidity of music helped her survive it. “I was afraid because I was looking at a world of signifiers and abstraction, broad basic swatches of symbols and experience expressed in symbols that were both general and refined,” she writes. For this reason, she initially had an aversion to the poppy sheen of the Talking Heads’ early work, but was transformed by their 1979 album, about which she wrote, “It was like the hard, clever form of their songs had burst [...] Listening was like going through a tiny door and coming out somewhere vast, with thousands of doors and windows to a thousand other places.”
It’s no wonder that Gaitskill ― with her interest in unconventional pop songs and taboo romances ― has a deep admiration for Nabokov’s Lolita, a book that manages to be about both seedy obsession and true love. In her essay “Pictures of Lo,” she writes that the book depicts “love crying with pain as it is crushed into the thorned corner of a torture garden ― but it is still love.” It’s a fitting takeaway coming from the same author who wrote “A Romantic Weekend,” a short story about a man and a woman who’ve miscommunicated about their sadomasochistic wants, leaving each of them unsatisfied.
When asked whether she’d categorize any of her own stories as love stories, Gaitskill cited her 2016 novel The Mare, narrated by a woman, Ginger, and Velvet, the girl she cares for as part of a Fresh Air Fund-like program. Velvet gets wrapped up in a relationship with a boy named Dominic, but keeps the details of her sexual awakening to herself, distancing her from her mother and Ginger.
“It’s a very small love story, but it is a love story,” Gaitskill says, then, after a time, adds, “There must be something else. Hold on.”
Gaitskill gets up from her seat at her kitchen table and heads to her modest entryway library, shuffling through copies of her own books, thumbing through the Index sections. “‘Romantic Weekend,’ no. ‘Secretary,’ no,” she says. “Don’t tell me there’s nothing.”
She returns to the table with her bibliography in tow, her novels Veronica and Two Girls, Fat and Thin among the stack. After a time, she decides on three stories, counting them on her fingers, listing them as evidence: “Don’t Cry,” “Today I’m Yours” and “The Blanket.” She’s amused by the task, but satisfied to have completed it.
“You don’t have to write love stories,” I say, laughing now, too. “You don’t have to write anything.”
“I mean they’re nice,” she says. “They’re part of the experience of the world.”