This summer, Mary Gaitskill’s novella ‘This is Pleasure’ arrived in the world. In it, Quin and Margot alternately narrate a story concerning (among others) Quin, who has been accused of sexual harassment by numerous women. On the one hand, this is a #MeToo movement story with clear ties to events that have occurred in the so-called ‘real world’; on the other, it is about human consciousness attempting to understand itself. Quin does not understand why these accusations have come his way when, to him, the women were willing participants in his behaviors. Margot, still his friend, doesn’t fully understand either, but from a different point of view: she knows he has behaved badly, but she was able to stop him. Why couldn’t the other women stop him too? The novella circles around power dynamics, sex, friendship, love, betrayal, generational gaps in understanding what behavior is and is not acceptable, among other things. Because Gaitskill often writes what I would call the consciousness of characters rather than the story of the characters, we can’t help but see that Quin is a person, full and flawed, awful and not, viewing reality in a particular and limited way, as we all do.
After reading ‘This is Pleasure,’ I returned to Gaitskill’s first book, Bad Behavior, out of curiosity. At the end of ‘This is Pleasure,’ I was not deeply moved in the sense that I felt heartbroken for Quin, for Margot, or for any of the victims/accusers; I was not moved to heartache in any conventional sense; my heart did not rise or fall. I was, instead, left in a deeply uncertain place, ungrounded, wild, alive – and sick of my own sick judgments. I was left with a sense of spaciousness, or a sense of the spaciousness that I lacked. I felt my own personal failures: the boxing in of others, of myself, the ungenerous thought directed at someone I might disagree with, the self-righteousness associated with my own political/ideological/artistic proclivities. So, I was curious to see if Bad Behavior – a book I hadn’t read in some time – engendered the same feelings.
It’s not possible to consider all the stories in Bad Behavior, so I’ll pick one, ‘Connection’. In it, mid-thirties Susan has returned to Manhattan for a short visit, when she encounters a ‘youthful bag lady,’ whose face reminds her of a friend from years ago, Leisha. The story tells not so much the story of two friends, but of a mind (Susan’s) searching that past friendship, triggered by a familiar face, going on a mental journey. ‘Mental journey’ is such an overused cliché, and yet it is true. We spend our time in an office, in front of a screen, walking around, getting groceries, briefly returning to places we once lived – the external plot of our lives is vapid. But the internal drama is vivid and wild.
Though Susan does next to nothing during this visit to Manhattan – she lounges around a friend’s apartment – inwardly she sees that ‘Leisha had been part of an amorphous body of memories provoked by this visit to Manhattan, but now she was the lens through which all the other memories were seen.’ Susan recalls initially seeing Leisha as the ‘worst stereotype of the girliest girl imaginable,’ whereas Leisha saw Susan ‘all in black, in stretch pants and spike-heeled shoes.’ They are polar opposites, yet they fall into a kind of love. Susan follows the tracks of her and Leisha in her memory: their falling into a kind of platonic love, their emotional dependency on each other, their jealousies, their eventual resentments, each selfish, each flawed, and finally, their judgment of each other’s differences and different ways of being in the world, which had engendered the love in the first place. Toward the end of the story, Susan feels impelled to make a phone call to Leisha – to make amends, to reconcile, to simply check on her? – but has a hard time tracking her down.
The form of the story then – a mind searching itself – is the story itself. Through memory, Gaitskill’s characters lead themselves to a deeper understanding of a present reality, I have found, and here, Susan’s mind leads her eventually to Leisha, the totality of her lost friend:
She saw [Leisha] standing in empty space […] She looked at this girl and realized that, with all the falseness and silliness between them, she had cared for her, and been cared for in return. She wanted to talk to her, and tomorrow she would try again.
The story is transparently non-epiphanic: Susan hasn’t just ‘realized’ something. Instead, Susan has arrived through herself at a wide, spacious part of her mind, beyond her judgments of Leisha, her resentments of Leisha, and beyond even her grief at the loss of their friendship. Susan finds a way to that open place where Leisha and Susan first connected. It’s this I admire most about Gaitskill’s writing, present even in her first book all the way back in 1988: her ability to track the way a mind struggles to get out of its old, habitual tracks. In allowing her characters this freedom, Gaitskill pushes the reader into those same wide open spaces of consciousness and there asks a question: can you withhold judgment of these characters, the people around you, even yourself, to see what you’re not seeing?
Photograph © The Integer Club