Book of the moment
I recently read Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill, and my advisor recommended her short story collection, Don’t Cry. I’m a few stories in at this point, not quite to “Mirrorball”, but I had to stop and process some of what I’m thinking.
Something I like about Gaitskill is how crude and beautiful she can be at the same time. It’s something I struggle with in my own work, which points to the truth of a piece of writing. You can feel that Gaitskill’s dirty jokes or “bad” language stem from an angry place, be it from Dorothy in “College Town, 1980” or the unnamed narrator in “The Agonized Face”, but that the rage is a place she’s explored pretty deeply to get at the pain and darkness underneath the brittle crust of anger.
I’m still riding that crust in my own work pretty hard. Gaitskill’s showing me that swearing and bluntness alone do not shock. It’s a given in our post-post-post-modern society, or whatever definition we’re moving into, but it’s something that I forget when I write. Gaitskill’s beauty makes you work for it, and you can tell that she’s worked for it in order to capture it in her stories.
A good example of this is in “The Agonized Face”, when the narrator recalls a story she once did about a stripper whose interest in Hegel and Nietzsche is juxtaposed with the unfortunate sexual violence inherent in her job:
The combination was pathetic, and yet it had the dignity of awful truth. Not only because it was titillating – though, yes, it was – but because in the telling of it, a certain foundation of humanity was revealed; the crude cinder blocks of male and female down in the basement, holding up the house […] We are glad to have the topless dancer to remind us of that dark area in the basement where personality is irrelevant and crude truth prevails. Her philosophical patter even added to the power of her story because it created a stark polarity: intelligent words on one side, and mute genitals on the other. Between the poles, there was darkness and mystery, and the dancer respected the mystery with her ignorant and touching pretense – Gaitskill, p. 58
This particular idea is something I struggle to articulate, and she seems to sum it up from a particular perspective very beautifully. There is a space in which this kind of transaction takes place, and it’s not gorgeous or poetic or easy to articulate. It becomes silly and embarrassing and violent and depressing and terrible, and the ways in which we try to tell these stories are clumsy, but Gaitskill’s character recognizes that the woman is at once pathetic and powerful.
I can accept places in her work where it seems almost overbearing because of moments of beautiful knowledge of the feminine body. I earn these moments by reading, but I haven’t earned them yet in my own work because I refuse to go there, because I am afraid. There’s truth in my writing, but it’s overshadowed by the overbearing. My education at this point is about finding that balance.