It took some time for the cultural conversation to catch up with Mary Gaitskill, who has been exploring the power dynamics inherent in sex since her 1988 debut short story collection, the cult classic Bad Behavior. Oppositions, her first collection of nonfiction to be published in the UK, is a slimmed-down version of Somebody with a Little Hammer, released in the United States in 2017. The aim, perhaps, is for it to piggyback on the critical success of Gaitskill’s 2019 #MeToo novella, This Is Pleasure.
Gaitskill has said that she chose to tackle #MeToo in fiction because her feelings about it were “too complicated and contradictory” for the rational argument expected of an essay. As the title of Oppositions implies, her nonfiction nonetheless succeeds in embracing complexity. In “The Trouble with Following the Rules”, Gaitskill recounts two personal experiences of sexual assault: one by an acquaintance; one by a stranger. Contrary to her expectations, she found the former more traumatic. “Pain can be an experience that defies codification.”
That essay features in the “Living” section of Oppositions, along with “A Lot of Exploding Heads: On reading the Book of Revelation”, in which Gaitskill recounts a brief stint as a born-again Christian in her early twenties, and “The Bridge”, in which a concussion reminds her, eventually, of a stripper she knew who never recovered from a head injury inflicted by a stranger. “Leave the Woman Alone” examines the judgement suffered by the wives of politicians enmeshed in sex scandals. “Learning to Ride” – the only essay not in Somebody with a Little Hammer – is about horse-riding, something Gaitskill took up in her mid-fifties while researching her novel The Mare (2015).
Gaitskill’s personal essays are evergreen, but the two thirds of the collection devoted to criticism of books, films and music would have benefited from updating. The most recent work of fiction covered is Gillian Flynn’s literary thriller Gone Girl (2012). Although the observations on Dickens and Nabokov still resonate, it’s hard to argue that Björk, Talking Heads or Sarah Palin remain as culturally relevant today. The best piece of criticism in the collection relates to Gaitskill’s own work. In “Victims and Losers, A Love Story”, she shares her thoughts on the 2002 film adaptation of “Secretary”, about a temp spanked by her boss at work. She calls it “the Pretty Woman version, heavy on the charm (and a little too nice)”, although she concedes that “Secretary” is “an almost impossible story to make a movie of” because “its drama is internal, rendered in language very nearly like code and meant to be sensed rather than explicitly seen”.
Readers keen on self-reflection of this kind may be drawn to the premiss of The Devil’s Treasure, which aims to lift the veil on the creative process behind four of Gaitskill’s published works and one work-in-progress. As she explains in an author’s note, the book is “a collage made from fragments of novels, essays, memoir, critical writing, visual art, and dreams connected by a single story”. The text is colour-coded, with red denoting the parable “The Devil’s Treasure”, which first appeared in the digital publication Electric Literature in 2012; yellow signalling snippets of other existing work; and orange indicating her commentary. Gaitskill punctuates the text with visual collages she created herself (finding the process “freeing” during lockdown, when writing was difficult), many of which feature paintings by the late Paul Matthews.
Gaitskill takes the opportunity in The Devil’s Treasure to address questions of cultural appropriation raised by controversies such as the backlash to Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt, when some readers took issue with a white author telling the story of Mexican migrants. The Mare, about a Dominican girl mentored by a white woman, was based on a family Gaitskill met through the Fresh Air Fund – an experience she unpacks in “Lost Cat”, a long essay first published in Granta in 2009 and issued by Daunt as a standalone book in 2020. Gaitskill acknowledges that “there is awkwardness in The Mare, cultural ignorance manifested in details that are just slightly wrong or, even more, details that aren’t present; in some places the tone or flavor isn’t quite right”. While she knew the girl who inspired the heroine and knew her well, she “knew much less about how she functioned socially in her own world”. Gaitskill does not feel that The Mare was exploitative. Despite the characters’ grounding in reality, she invented the story: “Or rather I half invented it, half lived it, for this was my story too”…
Read the full review online at the TLS