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An Intimate Moment with Mary

In Mary Gaitskill's world, human connection is hard to make -- and harder to sustain

"Really, there's not that much sex at all," says Mary Gaitskill of the stories in her new collection, Because They Wanted To.

At first blush, she's wrong. The book contains more variations than an average Hustler: There's role-playing; there's train-pulling; there's anal sex, oral sex and a dash of lesbian S&M. In "Kiss and Tell," we read this of two lovers' third encounter: "she ground astride him backward, showing the rindy fat of her bunched ass -- the unsuspected ugliness of which inflamed him all the more." When the images are that specific, a little goes a long way.

But sex per se is only a motif in Gaitskill's work; her true subject is the difficulty of human connection. In their elaborate fornications, her characters seek an emotional bond -- a state that few of them achieve, and even fewer sustain. For the most part, their talk and thoughts about sex, and even their actual copulations, leave the reader less titillated than sad.

In "Orchid," we read of Margot and Patrick, reunited after 16 years, but less able than ever to connect, even as Patrick is making a pass: "He was trying to show himself to her, to explain something. He didn't have the means, but he was trying, silently, with his eyes. And she was trying, too. It was as if they were signaling each other from different planets, too far away to read the signals but just able to register that a signal was being sent. They sat and looked at each other, their youth and beauty gone, their selves more bare and at the same time more hidden."

In "Stuff," a woman considers a possible lover: "He was certainly no more odd or tacky than I, a woman who would debase herself trivially, for sport, and yet who sought, in the sheltering darkness of her debasement, passion, depth and, most ludicrous, even tenderness."

Penthouse Letters it ain't.

On the phone, the Simon & Schuster publicist handling Gaitskill's book tour searches for the right words to prepare an interviewer. "She's ... nervous," he says. "It's best to be really, really calm around her."

Gaitskill lives in a lovely, dilapidated apartment complex in the no man's land between Rice University and downtown. When she answers her apartment's buzzer, the publicist's advice seems less strange. Gaitskill is small-boned, with hair an unnatural shade of red. A tiny stone glints from her nose. Her voice is soft. She seems almost to tremble, and she blinks hard. You think of a pet rabbit, and your first impulse is, in fact, to be really, really calm, lest she bolt.

Her apartment is a dead ringer for the one occupied by her character Susan, the narrator of four connected stories in Because They Wanted To. Gaitskill's living room has the same spareness, the same red couch, and is shared with two cats -- the number that Susan keeps. "You live like a kid," a suitor tells Susan, on seeing her underfurnished state; one can easily imagine Gaitskill taking umbrage at the remark.

Furniture is not the only thing Gaitskill shares with her characters. Many of her stories' central figures are unmarried women who are no longer young (Gaitskill is now 42). One such character is a freelance writer, and on one assignment, accompanies a well-known photographer as he photographs a supermodel in a strip club; once, for Harper's Bazaar, Gaitskill wrote about Jennifer Jason Leigh's posing in a strip club. Another protagonist is a poet who teaches writing, but hasn't written in years; five years elapsed between Gaitskill's second and third book.

Discussing her life, Gaitskill seems less frail than she did at the door. Her quivering somehow takes on a different tenor: not of fear, or hypersensitivity, but of intensity and a determination to transmit her message clearly.

She describes the life she's described to other interviewers, telling the stories she'll tell, over and over, on the book tour she has coming up -- a life that makes for riveting stories, be they nonfiction or fiction. She ran away from home when she was 15, and worked briefly as a stripper and a prostitute. She did drugs; she panhandled; she was raped.

After graduating from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she found that her journalism degree did her no good. In New York, she worked here and there in a blurry series of dead-end jobs: art model, waitress, whatever was available, whatever would pay the rent.

All the while, she wrote short stories. Some of her friends liked them, but Gaitskill didn't weigh their opinions heavily. Magazine after magazine mailed the pieces back. She worked as a freelance legal proofreader, a job that paid well, and began to think that, if she couldn't make a go of writing fiction, maybe her life would be okay anyway.

One evening, she got a call from an agent who'd read her stories. He said, "I'm really excited about this collection."

She replied, "Everybody hates it."
He said, "What do you mean?"
"I've sent it to people, and they hate it."
"I don't hate it."
"Can you call me back? I'm eating breakfast."

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