The Nobel Prize for literature is supposed to honor works with an “ideal direction,” providing “the greatest benefit on mankind.” But as André Gide observed, fine feelings are often the raw materials for bad literature. Mary Gaitskill knows that fine feelings have their place in the world, though inevitably they are mixed up with feelings of many other sorts. In fact, it is the mixture that makes literature, and that creates the distinctive bitter-sweet flavor of her work.
Somebody With a Little Hammer is a kind of Gaitskill tasting menu with thirty-one occasional reviews and essays, most of them easily swallowed in a few bites. There are only three longer essays, of which the most personally revealing is the memoir “Lost Cat.” The two others are “Following the Rules,” which is about rape and “victim culture,” and “The Bridge,” about a visit to St. Petersburg. About half the pieces are book reviews, ranging from Dickens and Nabokov to Updike and Mailer, with lesser figures filling the gaps. American popular music gets a good share of attention, and perhaps the best short piece in the book is on, of all people, Céline Dion.
In such a miscellaneous collection one tries to find a common thread; and the obvious one would be Gaitskill’s concern for the condition of women, as she has observed it—and lived it—over the past sixty or so years of her life. It is a current cliché that, in order to thrive, women should “know the rules” and learn to respect them. “The rules” protect their vulnerable condition from the aggressions of men. In this view, women resemble the small countries that call on international law to shield them from the use of force by the great powers. If there are no rules then, as Thucydides has explained, “the strong do what they may and the weak suffer what they must.”
Even if we might agree that women would be wise to follow the rules, Gaitskill is an artist as well as a woman; and an artist is someone who questions the rules, and measures them against her own experience. At age sixteen, in 1970, Gaitskill walked out of her middle-class home into five years of sexual and emotional chaos. At twenty-one she became a born-again Christian, to shelter her from what she had known on the street: “the violence, the lies, the grotesque pride, the filth, pitching and heaving under the semblance of order.” Yet religion did not save her for long, because she came to believe that God—like the nuclear family—"is kind only as long as you adhere to the rules.“
To rebel against the rules established in the world may be quixotic, but Gaitskill has nonetheless struggled to arrive at her own set of rules. They mark out a narrow way between the anguished outcries of "victim culture” and the passivity of just accepting the rules as given. If her way comes at a price, Gaitskill remains stoical about having paid it:
When I was seventeen I was violently raped. It was horrible, but I got through it and did not believe it affected me overmuch. It did not inhibit me sexually; in the years following the experience, I was promiscuous, even aggressively so.
Gaitskill picks her words carefully. At the time she “did not believe” that the rape changed her life. She does not say, now, that it has not. Her years of sexual anarchy have been a constant influence on the kind of fiction she has written. They constitute her “matter,” as Henry James would say; and the matter is often dark.
Somebody With a Little Hammer frequently attacks the “victim culture” with which we are all familiar. But where does Gaitskill line up in the gender wars? There could be a clue in Goya’s naked and clothed “Majas.” Maja is not in fact the feminine form of Macho, but there is a family resemblance: the Maja embodies female power while remaining feminine. Is it possible, though, in today’s culture, for a woman to be at once attractive and assertive, seductive and defiant? Such qualities seem to conflict with a conventionally feminine image of tenderness and vulnerability. Strength, in a woman, is already a provocation—all the more so when it is combined with beauty; and Gaitskill’s fiction explores beauty’s dark side, often as she herself has experienced it. Gaitskill has tried, in her work, to express both sides of her nature, both action and compassion. To be emotionally complete, she suggests, is simple enough, in principle at least. Just don’t be afraid.
How that rule might work appears in what may be the most impressive piece in the book, on the unlikely subject of Céline Dion. Elsewhere, Gaitskill praises the performers who have been close to her heart, such as Björk, B-Movie or the Talking Heads. Dion can sing, certainly, but in a style that puts her at odds with the main stream of American pop music (what Gaitskill has called “finite little boxes of pleasure”). The occasion for writing about Dion is a review of Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love, which gives proof of “just how much emotion and energy he and apparently hordes of others have expended in hating and despising … . the most wholly repellent woman ever to sing songs of love.”
So what is the most repellent thing Céline has ever done, worse even than her way of singing? “She had the vulgarity,” Gaitskill observes, “to get all emotional about the victims of Hurricane Katrina on Larry King, crying even.” And why should this be such a crime, setting off internet memes like “Céline Goes Crazy”? Because, Gaitskill continues, “there have always been and always will be stunted creatures who make fun of people for showing emotion that said creatures are uncomfortable with.” As with Lady Diana’s notorious interview about the failure of her marriage, nervous laughter is our usual way of shielding ourselves from what is going on in front of us:
Dion’s response wasn’t only moral; it showed a sort of biologically based empathy that understands the physical vulnerability of humans in the world… . But our ridiculous vulnerability is perhaps the most authentic thing about us, and we scorn it at our peril—yet scorn it we do.
Carl Wilson’s approach to his subject is given in his subtitle: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. A collection like Somebody With a Little Hammer is itself an exercise in taste-making, but Gaitskill does not set out to pillory books or writers she doesn’t much like. Nor does she resort to “the horrible baroque language of modern criticism.” She can find some common ground with Elizabeth Wurtzel, whose Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women tries to fight back against “the contemptuous, cruel treatment of sexual women.” The trouble is that Wurtzel’s anger “is that of a wounded child, and it ruins the book, even when she has good points to make and good sentences to make them with.”
Having survived the culture wars of the seventies, Gaitskill often shows impatience with the concerns of today’s younger generation, what she has called “relentlessly small-focus self-blathering.” She told a group of graduate students to “‘Go home and look between your legs and tell me if that is a social construct’ and then of course all hell broke loose.” Generational tensions come to the fore in the collection’s title essay, “Somebody With a Little Hammer” (a quote from Chekhov’s story “Gooseberries”). When teaching the story, Gaitskill thinks about the contrast between her prosperous—and sometimes complacent—students, and the poor or homeless people who live in her neighborhood:
At the door of every contented, happy man [Chekhov writes] somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws, some calamity will befall him …
What we don’t see—or what we choose to ignore—doesn’t trouble us. Until the day that, in one way or another, we ourselves join the ranks of the afflicted.
Anyone may have an opinion about the widening gap between rich and poor in the US; but Gaitskill deals more in experiences than in opinions. There is the woman begging to whom she gives a few dollars, and the student next door who has a new car delivered right to her driveway. As it is unloaded from the transporter, shadowy homeless people look on from a park across the street. So Chekhov is “still right that no matter what we literally see, on television or in life, we nonetheless will ourselves not to see what we don’t wish to see—or to feel. Sometimes, too, you don’t know exactly what you feel.”
The longest piece in Somebody With a Little Hammer is called simply “Lost Cat.” It’s about the price of living with your heart on your sleeve, as Gaitskill clearly has chosen to do from the time she first left home. Living in Italy for a while, she found a sick cat and brought it back to the US. “An animal,” she recalls, “can receive love far more easily than even a very young human. And so I thought it would be possible to shelter a kitten with love.”
Gaitskill’s adoption of “Gattino” runs parallel with her intermittent hosting of three children from East New York, who came to her and her husband through the Fresh Air Fund. Once she had rescued her cat, at great trouble and expense, it “looked at her with love,” sealing their bond. Until, a few months after Gaitskill returned to the US, Gattino disappeared and was never seen again.
If her cat remained lost, it was not from any lack of efforts to find him. Gattino was easy to love, just impossible to reach once he had strayed. His story is a reversal of Gaitskill’s efforts at emotional connection with the children who had come to her from troubled families in Manhattan. “Human love is grossly flawed,” she writes, “and even when it isn’t, people routinely misunderstand it, reject it, use it, or manipulate it.” The children don’t run away; they stay in place, remaining hostile and disruptive to someone who just wants to welcome and nurture them.
“Lost Cat” has no happy endings, though it does show Gaitskill’s obsessive—perhaps foolish—devotion to “doing the right thing,” at least for children and pets. How does this connect with the dark world of her short stories and novels? These works are not exactly perverse, but they certainly are preoccupied with the endless ways that sexual desire can go wrong. “In case you don’t know,” Gaitskill wryly observes, “I’m supposedly sick and dark.” Her fiction certainly rests on what she calls “the deep, doggishly honest presence of the body,” and the foolish or destructive things that the body makes people do.
Deeper than the body’s needs, though, are the emotional ones and especially, for Gaitskill, those specific to women. Masochism is often at the center of her fiction, and even of her personal history as both victim and survivor of the seventies. Somebody With a Little Hammer considers masochism in the context of Linda Lovelace and the porn “classic” Deep Throat (1972). Lovelace claimed that her then husband had made her perform at gunpoint, and she became a born-again crusader against the porn industry. Gaitskill wonders about the truth of all this, but concludes that in Lovelace’s world of extremes the literal truth hardly matters:
Maybe she started out liking it and came to hate it, or liked it sometimes and hated it other times. Maybe she never liked it but was masochistically aroused by it; maybe she hated it straight up but did it anyway. Not many people could describe experiencing any of this accurately, let alone honestly, especially if it was all true.
Gaitskill brings together Lovelace’s performance in Deep Throat and that of Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. There could hardly be two more dissimilar movies, it might seem, than these two. Yet Gaitskill goes further out on her limb, by admitting that if the porn film failed to excite her, Passion was a different story:
I was horrified by this film, but also moved and so aroused that I was embarrassed to be in public, even in the dark. I don’t like images of persecution or death or torture, but liking was irrelevant; Passion demanded a powerful response, and my body gave it.
In Gaitskill’s fiction, plots are often driven by the recognition of awkward or shameful feelings, and the acceptance of living out their consequences. Reading her may be an uncomfortable experience, but her work is a refreshing relief from the ideological ax-grinding of so much contemporary fiction. Having witnessed the cultural chaos of the seventies, she has emerged with a kind of practical wisdom about the way we lived then. Gaitskill admits her feelings, rather than confessing them, and there is nothing “sick and dark” about doing that.
*Review of Mary Gaitskill, Somebody with a Little Hammer (New York: Pantheon, 2017)