An Intimate Moment with Mary

"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."

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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."

It was five o'clock in the evening, and Gaitskill didn't explain that she worked nights. The agent later told her it was the strangest phone call he'd ever had.

Nonetheless, he sold the stories -- not one by one, to magazines, as Gaitskill had dared to hope, but as a book. Bad Behavior appeared in 1988, and Gaitskill expected it to be ignored.

It wasn't. No less than the New York Times's Michiko Kakutani praised Gaitskill's "radar-perfect detail" and "repertorial candor, uncompromised by sentimentality or voyeuristic charm." Other reviewers heaped similar praises, and Gaitskill was cast as a member of the literary brat pack, the S&M contemporary of Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz, one of the new "extreme" or "transgressive" writers, a la A.M. Homes or William Vollman. Timing, Gaitskill thinks, was crucial: "I have a feeling that if I'd published three years earlier, I wouldn't have done as well."

In New York, strangers occasionally recognized her on the street. And people began to respond to her as a famous person: "Before, I'd always been awkward socially," says Gaitskill. "At parties, I was the retard standing in the corner. But suddenly, people expected me to say witty, ironic things."

Gaitskill admitted that much of Bad Behavior was autobiographical, and the literary world couldn't help but wonder what was "real" and what wasn't. After all, Bad Behavior was bracing even by New York standards. In it, a young secretary allows her boss to spank her and masturbate on her; an S&M tryst fizzles; and prostitutes navigate complicated relationships with their middle-class johns.

At first, she enjoyed the book's reception, took it as a confirmation that she wasn't weird, that she was, in fact, a writer. But a sense of exposure began to gnaw at her. Reading reviews and doing interviews jarred her. Her very personal stories were suddenly available in mass-market paperback. The feeling, she says, was of "letting the whole world into you."

She began having health problems. Loud noises made her jump. On a book tour, to support her paperback, she visited San Francisco, and someone drove her out to Marin County. Somehow, it suited her -- a quieter, softer place than New York -- and she took an apartment there. "Everything slowed," she says. "I didn't talk to anybody."

She taught writing classes here and there, and finished her first novel: Two Girls, Fat and Thin. In it, Gaitskill examined the parallel lives of two loners, the fat one a downtrodden disciple of an Ayn Rand-like rationalist, the thin one a journalist with a taste for S&M. The book was published in 1991, and met with mixed reviews. The novel "does not uniformly succeed in conventional terms," wrote novelist/reviewer Jane Smiley, though she allowed that Gaitskill had, perhaps unintentionally, drawn "a potent picture of an America that is the nightmare version of the America promoted by advertising."

This time around, the spotlight was less glaring. Interviewers tended to ask Gaitskill about the book, rather than her old-news personal history. But sometimes, at readings, audience members would try to divine the precise dividing point between Gaitskill's personal and private life. "What kind of person are you anyway?" they asked. "You're not fat and you're not thin. Who are you? Do you do all that stuff in the book?"

She moved to San Francisco, the setting for much of Because They Wanted To. The city, she says, was too cute. "And parades! I've never seen a city with so many parades! 'Now you can see what our sexuality is all about, as if you've somehow managed to miss it.' " She noticed that San Francisco seemed to be populated entirely by the very old and the very young, but hardly anyone her own age.

Last August, a teaching job at the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program brought her to Texas. The money wasn't great -- Gaitskill says she doesn't own a car because she can't afford one -- but for a fiction writer, it was significant. Teaching leaves Gaitskill too drained to write, and the year-long commitment to UH felt significant. But, she says, if the university asks her to extend her stay, she will. She admits that there's a "real limit" to what anyone can teach a would-be writer; the best she can hope, she says, is to "open a door" to her students.  

For a while, she held on to her apartment in San Francisco. This winter, she finally let it go. A reporter from the San Francisco Examiner interviewed her as she cleaned out the place. The move to Texas, she said, came as a shock to her system: "I still haven't recovered. If I wasn't such a moron with money, I'd still be living here."

But on that same trip, she visited her old psychic and personal healer. San Francisco and New York, the psychic told Gaitskill, offered too much of what she had already. Gaitskill felt that in a way, that was true; Houston was right for her.

After she tells that story, she stops for a moment. Outside her living-room window, the sun is setting, and a flock of pigeons rises and banks, with the eerie precision of birds, over the landscape of industrial roofs. Gaitskill watches, silent. For a few seconds, she seems to attain a stillness and peace of mind that eludes her characters.

The moment passes, and she again seems to quiver.

Gaitskill later calls to clarify a point. In the interview, she'd said that she liked doing readings: "I'm a shy person. And like a lot of shy people, I'm actually very hammy."

She's afraid that might have been misleading. "When I read, it's not a persona I inhabit," she says on the phone. "It's just me. In fact, I'm more being myself than I am normally; I totally inhabit my own world."

Her book tour is scheduled to begin in Houston the next evening. Gaitskill says she's already chosen the story she'll read. It's "Comfort," in which a man visits his hospitalized mother. It's one of the new book's least sex-oriented stories -- which makes it, Gaitskill thinks, appropriate for the audience. "I don't want to read sexually explicit things here," she says. "In San Francisco, it's common. But not here." Besides, she worries, people here know where she works, and some literary psycho might not notice the line that divides the writer from the work. "Comfort," she jokes, is "a long, droning family saga. If there's any perverts out there, they'll probably go to sleep."

She doesn't mention that "Comfort" is also perhaps the least obviously autobiographical story in Because They Wanted To. The protagonist is young and male, a drummer in a band, and the heart of the story concerns his relationship with his divorced parents. His muscular girlfriend is an almost comic character, who sees child abuse everywhere and can't fathom her lover's feelings for his family. If "Comfort" were a movie, there's not a part Gaitskill would be suited for. And that, perhaps, is why she chooses to read the story: The audience will not be staring at her, wondering which character is her.

On the night of the reading, about 50 people fill the folding chairs crammed into Brazos Books, the high temple of the city's literati. Carl Killian, the bookstore's owner, notes that Gaitskill has received an "extraordinary review" from Newsweek, and he waves a copy. (The accompanying photo shows Gaitskill sitting on her red couch, looking simultaneously fragile and predatory.) Bob Phillips of the Creative Writing Program introduces her, proclaiming that her work "shimmers with nuance," and that she is "a true original."

She asks whether she's supposed to stand behind the bookshop's counter to read, and looks relieved to hear that yes, she is. The counter offers protection, a barrier between her and the audience.

She reads well. "Comfort" -- not one of the book's funniest stories -- garners appreciative laughter in the right places. At one point, the protagonist is enjoying a train-themed restaurant, the sort he wouldn't patronize at home but secretly loves, because "they make such an effort." The audience laughs, appreciating both the humor and the effort.

The story contains only one sexual scene, a quick flashback. In it, the protagonist remembers his girlfriend naked, kneeling over a coffee table. " 'If I fucked you in the ass I would own you,' he'd said.

"She turned over quickly. 'No, you wouldn't. What a ridiculous thing to say.' "

Gaitskill reads the passage, and the audience laughs, unembarrassed. After the reading, the bookstore owner asks whether there are questions. There are none. As Gaitskill signs copies of her book, she chats, apparently relieved that she has managed to bare so much of her private world without answering nagging questions about her own, real-life experience. Her stories allow her a strange, one-way intimacy with her readers; reading the stories aloud, in front of a whole roomful of people, allows her to see her intimates up close, to know that they are experiencing, to some degree, what she is experiencing, that they have entered her private world. And Mary Gaitskill knows enough about failed intimacy to appreciate any that succeeds, no matter how limited.  

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