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The singular voice of Mary Gaitskill

NONFICTION

Somebody With A Little Hammer

By Mary Gaitskill

Pantheon

288 pages, $24.95

Whenever I talk about Mary Gaitskill with anyone who has read her – or frankly, even heard of her – I always ask “have you read ‘Lost Cat’ ”?

“Lost Cat” is a long essay that was published in the literary magazine Granta in 2009. It is, in a word (attempting to honor Gaitskill’s precision with words), “stunning.”  It made me feel a bit as though I had been hit on the head with a solid steel baseball bat (sans the headache, but with all the disorientation). It took me a few days to come out of the stupor it produced.

“Lost Cat” is no longer available to be read online, likely because it is the centerpiece of Gaitskill’s first published book of collected essays, “Somebody With A Little Hammer”.

“Lost Cat” was the short, non-fiction jumping off point for Gaitskill’s last novel, “The Mare,” in that it concerns a biologically childless white woman who hosts poor, urban children in her upstate home. These children have come to her through the Fresh Air Fund, and through her relationship with them she confronts every possible ghost of her own family, every path not taken, and nearly every cultural trope about race, womanhood, identity, and loss.

“Lost Cat” is also, simultaneously, about the experience of Gaitskill going slightly unhinged about the loss of an actual cat, observing herself doing so, and recording her emotional breakdown with intellectual rigor.  It resembles nothing else in literature so much as Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking,” though “Lost Cat” is in ways even more affecting and haunting for its structure and brevity and resonance.

 

It’s a gutting, brutal, lovely piece of work. Deserving of many more adjectives, though these will suffice. It’s “ideal Gaitskill” as well, and a pinnacle display of her power as a writer. It’s worth the purchase of “Somebody With A little Hammer” just to read it.

But then, of course, there is the rest of this book, full of the type of essays only Gaitskill writes. That they are a “type” is revealed only by considering them here as a whole, collected in one weighty place.

Gaitskill’s essays can be personal, memoir-ish, and similar in style to her fiction. I found “The Trouble With Following The Rules” (subtitled “On Date Rape, Victim Culture and Personal Responsibility") to be nearly as affecting as Lost Cat, with the added benefit of engaging both emotionally and intellectually with a hotly debated topic. Gaitskill takes a “fair and balanced” approach to issues of sexual morality, always championing the experiential underdog: the person who might not be able to articulate a point of view with perfect clarity, but whose voice is crucial any real lasting understanding. Because Gaitskill has struggled to make sense of her own experience, and succeeded, she knows how hard it is, and what we lose by not hearing from those who don’t share her skill.

Also here is her post-mortem reflection on the movie “Secretary,” starring Maggie Gyllenhall and James Spader, made from Gaitskill’s short story of the same name from her debut collection “Bad Behavior.”  Gaitskill “reviews” the movie from a compassionate yet uncompromising place (“…Americans are in truth profoundly, neurotically terrified of being victims, ever, in any way.”) and it’s worth reading even if you have neither seen the movie nor read the story.

Which brings me to her actual reviews, also collected here: What can possibly be gained from reading a review of a book you’re not even thinking about reading, or a movie you’ll surely never see? Gaitskill’s reviews answer this question. I was as captivated by her thoughts on “Agaat” by Marlene Van Niekirk (a book I’d never heard of and have no plans to read) as I was by her defense of politicians’ wives or her relationship to the work of Norman Mailer (subjects about which I, as a reader, enter with a vigorously pre-fabricated opinion).

Another essay that knocked me back into my chair comes toward the book’s end – “Icon”, about Linda Lovelace, star of the 70s porn film “Deep Throat” and a much-considered mainstream historical figure. Gaitskill’s previous writing about the intersections of sex and agency and dignity and feminine survival all accompany her into her description of our cultural obsession with Lovelace.

Gaitskill tells relevant parts of her own story, in the service of positioning Lovelace in a larger context of another woman’s sexual choices. She meticulously sets up short, clear concluding sentences that land with extreme power: “Chuck Traynor did hit Linda and he did own guns. If he ever pointed a gun at Linda, even once, in her mind it was always there.”

Again, Gaitskill’s bi-pronged commitment to both gentleness and unsparing clarity gives us a wholly new perspective from which to consider her subject.  This is her style, and largely hers alone, crafted over decades;  she's emotional without ever being cloudy or sodden, intellectual but never cold or removed.  And not only is there no one doing what she does better than she does it, there's really no one else doing it at all.

There’s fun to be found in "Somebody With A Little Hammer" too: especially in Gaitskill’s “bad” reviews of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” and Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Bitch: In Praise Of Difficult Women”.  Even while flaying these books open Gaitskill is respectful and empathetic, but no punches are pulled.  She redeems the need for these books to be written about seriously simply by being a serious writer who is writing about them.  But her critique of Wurtzel in particular becomes something of a Feminist Celebrity Genius Death Match, with a swoon-inducing opening sentence:

“If this kooky, foot-stamping, self-loathing screed is meant to be, as it claims, a defense of “difficult women” – that is women who “write their own operating manuals” in the hope that “the world may some day be a safer place for them” - then all I can say is, bitches best duck and run for cover.”

Without ever having to say so herself, and without cruelty, Gaitskill makes it clear in a few short pages that Wurtzel wasted a doorstop book trying, unsuccessfully, to be Mary Gaitskill.

The only warning to be given about “Somebody With a Little Hammer” is that it’s not “binge”-worthy.  Gaitskill is not light reading, and consuming too many of these essays in a row can have a numbing effect.  Her blunt presentations of fact and deep wades into unsentimental emotionality are like bites of a rich, dense meal.  Too much at once can be repellent.  But Gaitskill’s writing is somehow crucial in a way few of her peers can achieve.  She says the things you didn’t know needed to be said until she says them, and only then do you know what you’ve been missing.

Emily Simon is a Buffalo-raised freelance writer now living in California.

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