Photo: © Joe Gaffney
With her 1988 story collection, Bad Behavior—a devil's catalog of wanton sex, betrayal, and profoundly flawed people—Mary Gaitskill, now 55, established herself as a writer sensitive to the deepest cracks in the human psyche. Storyteller and memoirist Pam Houston appreciates her...
Mary Gaitskill knows it is a writer's job to never look politely away from weakness, darkness, frailty, ours or her own, because this is the only level of interrogation where what is authentic, and therefore luminous, may be revealed. She knows also that one human being is not as distinct from another as skin and skeleton would have us believe, that the fluidity between us is expressed continuously, in sex and similar acts of soul stealing, in words and sometimes in their absence. She knows that sometimes we collect objects from the physical world into ourselves and leave essential pieces of ourselves discarded among them. When I read her fiction, it reminds me that I know these things, too, but the difference must be that she knows she knows them, and I am standing tentative, with my fingers crossed.
Her intelligence is holographic, what is ground will not stay still and is made, at best, of fragments, memories and mirages, Rorschach inkblots that reveal now a waitress, now a soldier, now a hammerhead shark. Morality is both undeniable and always subject to revision. Instead of offering protection from the world, she offers us the tools to take a kind of pleasure in its difficulty. She knows it is possible for us to come into a certain power, an intuition that sings, that is not squeamish, that travels through self-obsession to someplace beyond it, that employs narcissism in the name of compassion and courage. She sees among and between layers of so-called reality and feels the world spinning, faster, faster feels herself sliding sideways, throws her hands in the air and gives in to gravity. She is ruthless and merciful. She tells a whole truth.