Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, having Mary Gaitskill's story collection Bad Behavior (1988) on your bookshelf meant something. Gaitskill told stories about secretaries getting spanked, mopey young women caught in sadomasochistic affairs, disaffected prostitutes who were just trying to get enough money to go to art school. To display her book meant you were self-consciously transgressive. You might not live full-time on the dark side, but you'd paid a few visits there.
The book was, to misquote Spinal Tap, sexual but not sexy. The stories were too scary to be read as lite porn. The book was made especially unnerving by its lack of any identifiable stance. Gaitskill was writing about what was generally considered kinky sex, but she wasn't recognizably pro-sex, a fun-to-say term we had all learned only recently. In fact, she took special care to show the pain behind the spanking and hooking. Her people shifted in and out of insanity; they were desensitized; they were just plain sad. Gaitskill was so good at evoking this sadness that it came to seem inevitable; not just for her characters, but for her reader. No one got off the hook.
Bad Behavior was followed by two books which didn't stray widely: Two Girls Fat and Thin (1991), a novel with more S&M and also a spiky, funny satire of the followers of Ayn Rand, and then Because They Wanted To (1997), another story collection similarly themed.
Transgression comes prepackaged with its own obsolescence; I found myself thinking of Gaitskill as somehow outdated. I was growing up and no longer interested in the titillating and upsetting subject matter of her books. I mistook the writer for her subject, and in my mind I reduced her to some kind of just-for-thrills caricature of herself: I pictured her pierced and glowering, clad in a bra and a black leather jacket, frightening the horses just as hard as she could.
Then, in 2006, Gaitskill published the novel Veronica, in which a former fashion model named Alison, now very sick with hepatitis C, looks back on her life and allegedly high times. Alison finds that she can't stop thinking about Veronica, an uncool co-worker from Alison's temping days who has died of AIDS. The book is a relentlessly serious exploration of early mortality; it is also beautifully written, filled with bizarre descants. This passage—describing a Paris runway show—demonstrates how Gaitskill marries her old raw sensibility with a fresh, overheated strangeness:
Thumping music took you into the lower body, where the valves and pistons were working. You caught a dark whiff of shit, the sweetness of cherries, and the laughter of girls. Like lightning, the contrast cut down the center of the earth: We all eat and shit, screw and die. But here is Beauty in a white dress.
Veronica seems to have marked a new direction in Gaitskill's writing. Her latest collection, Don't Cry, continues to use operatically strange writing to probe elusive states of mind. Risking corniness, Gaitskill writes about big feelings, like fear and love and subjugation—feelings that bind us to others and that also expose our aloneness. But corniness is the last thing she has produced. Instead, she reframes these emotions in new ways.
In fact, she seems always to be asking us to think of a world that exists beyond our usual names for, and experiences of, emotion. In the story "Description," a writing teacher named Janice reads her class a passage from Chekhov about a young woman whose baby has just died.
Janice asked them whether they could imagine such a scene written now. The suffering girl walking in the live darkness, the vast world of creatures all around. The girl and her suffering a small thing in this mysterious, still-soft, and beautiful world. Through this description of physical life, said Janice, mystery was bigger than human feeling, and yet physical life bore up human feeling as with a compassionate hand.
Here, Gaitskill has identified the three layers of experience she wants to explore: physical life, human feeling, mystery. For her these three layers constantly interact. This interaction ends her up in some pretty weird places in Don't Cry, none weirder than "Mirror Ball," a story about a girl who has a one-night stand with a musician and gets her feelings hurt. Hardly an extraordinary topic, but in Gaitskill's story, something extraordinary happens: "He took her soul—though, being a secular-minded person, he didn't think of it that way."
The girl senses that her soul has been stolen but can't quite put her finger on the problem. She tries framing her dilemma in the language more commonly used in fiction: "Because the girl was also a secular person, she didn't know he'd taken her soul any more than he did. … Rational and proud, she controlled her feelings by categorizing them in terms of obsession and projection."