Last night I finished reading Mary Gaitskill’s Because They Wanted to, at long last. I’ve been working through it for a few weeks, stealing chances to read now and then. I enjoyed it about as much as I enjoyed Don’t Cry, which was a lot.
Gaitskill’s narrators tend to have a detached objectivity, which I think would normally turn me off because it gets “cold” and “robotic” if overdone, but she tempers it with gorgeous descriptions and unique, unlikely metaphors and similes. I’ll never forget how in “College Town” in Don’t Cry, she described one character as having the “face of a greyhound,” which I thought was simple and brilliant.
On the one hand then, in Gaitskill’s work you get the very sort of high-intellect descriptors mixed with very reflex-oriented, gutteral metaphor. While the body and the mind don’t necessarily coexist in her fiction, they share the burden of the story telling. It’s an interesting give-and-take.
A lot of the stories are about intimate relationships. Gaitskill’s objectivity, when applied to sex and sexuality, is somewhat uncanny, but it also feels very honest and true to me in a way that doesn’t at all glorify or memorialize the sex act in any way. There’s no sentimentality in her work. That’s what I’m trying to say. But it is emotional. The emotional effect of her work is cumulative, and many of the stories are burdened by lonesomeness, by characters who are, like their narration, almost fully detached from the world itself, held on by the thread that tethers them to the story (which sometimes breaks off at the end, letting them drift off into nothingness).
Of all the prose writers I’ve been writing, I think it’s she who I admire most. The craft of her language is, to me, exquisite and interesting and challenging in a lot of ways, but always true.