FEBRUARY 24, 2020
The idea that fiction has certain irreducible ambiguities seemed never to occur to these women, nor should it have, for fiction is in most ways hostile to ideology.
— Joan Didion, “The Women’s Movement,” 1972
IN HER NEW stand-alone story, Mary Gaitskill is not so much hostile to ideology as impervious to it. For Gaitskill, reducing the complexity of situation or character in order to make a point is the job of a propagandist, not a writer. The qualities that make This Is Pleasure maddening — the feeling that the ground is constantly shifting beneath your feet, that the writer provides information that forces you to continually revise your views of the two characters telling the story — are the very things that mean Gaitskill is doing her job. They may also be the very thing that partisans on both sides of #MeToo, the subject of the story, will find intolerable.
Or it may simply be that people will assume that Gaitskill is merely playing her assigned role as sociosexual provocateur, relying on the false public perception that has built around her since her 1988 debut Bad Behavior, which led people to term her as a “transgressive” writer.
The unsettling combination Gaitskill mastered in her short stories was the matter-of-fact presentation of discomfiting situations explored with lucid and coherent psychology. Her last novel, 2015’s The Mare, revealed an ambition that went considerably beyond that, and one that was easy to overlook simply because the subject seemed so modest and so familiar. Within the parameters of a girl-meets-horse story, Gaitskill explored race and class in the United States and the insufficiency of liberal benevolence alone to traverse their divisions. Reading it was like experiencing the heartbreak of a children’s classic rendered with the complexity and nuance of an adult novel.
The Mare is close to a modern American classic waiting to be acknowledged as such. This Is Pleasure does not share its ambition; at 83 pages, it can’t. Part of its slenderness might also be Gaitskill’s attempt to give the arguments inside their proper scale. For all the upheaval the revelations of the #MeToo movement have set in motion, for all the bitter arguments it has provoked, Gaitskill senses on both sides a smallness of spirit perhaps best dissected in the contained form of this story.
This Is Pleasure is told by two characters who alternate chapters: Quin, an Englishman long settled in New York, is a dapper, successful book editor who has been dismissed from his job after complaints of “inappropriate behavior,” a phrase we now use unthinkingly to denote something vile, even though its elasticity and inexactitude render it meaningless by itself. The other narrator, Margot, Quin’s friend, is herself a successful editor, younger than he is, and one of the women Quin has befriended and taken into his confidence. Unlike the others, Margot remains Quin’s defender after his dismissal.
Quin’s case is strange and complicated. His accusers are not former lovers, nor has Quin attempted to make them so. With a few exceptions, his overtures are not physical. One that is, directed toward Margot, is wholly unwanted, and she stops it firmly before it can be completed. Quin isn’t seeking control or making demands or extorting sex for promises of career advancement. More than anything, his reckless flirting — some via email and text, some via conversation, all reciprocal — bespeaks a desire not to possess the women he befriends, but to be privy to their desires and secrets. One young woman texts him every time she masturbates to tell him what she was fantasizing. Others interrupt dinner parties with messages seeking advice about their boyfriends. In one passage, Margot goes to Quin’s office and finds him amid a crowd of girls (her word), comforting one of their number, who is weeping. “I do remember,” Margot says, “the open, unashamed weeping, the placidity of the other women, the strength of Quin’s voice, the room filled with sun, as if this were a sanctuary where every feeling might be aired and resolved.”
What Quin craves is a version of the longing Prince sang about in “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” a man’s desire to experience the ineffable closeness that exists between women, something that sex itself can’t provide because the nature of sex is to put us into the inescapably adversarial roles of man and woman, of the one desiring and the one being desired, of actor and acted upon.
But Quin isn’t Prince, he’s not a smooth seducer. His flirting is clumsy, at times creepy, and above all supremely naïve. Margot recounts an incident at a reading where Quin approaches the young female author, sticks his thumb in her face, and tells her to bite it. The writer, not knowing the man and understandably disgusted, turns away. “She’s cute,” Quin says, “but she’s not game.” Quin likes to flatter himself that he can discern the essence of any man or woman and, who knows, maybe this young woman isn’t game. But what, you have to wonder of someone so willing to disregard social norms, does he expect? The stories about Quin, Margot, and her husband agree, are both funny and awful. And Quin, like the academic suicide in Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, wants to flatter himself that he’s someone who sees through the phoniness of those norms and conventions, someone not in thrall to the timidity those things represent. Quin often describes the authors he champions as crusaders, and there’s more than a little of that view in his estimation of himself.
It’s easy to share Margot’s frustration with Quin, a smart and gifted man who so easily lays himself open to trouble. A woman wouldn’t need to be a prude or a scold to feel uncomfortable with his questions. But Quin’s behavior forces to the surface a question that none of the battles being waged have bothered to address. His actions are deemed “inappropriate,” the now-preferred adjective we use to describe everything from real abuse to a clumsy pass. In that context, the word implies that sex is essentially private and that there are some behaviors, some topics, not meant to be aired in public. The trouble is that the shibboleth of what’s appropriate has been raised to object to every advance in sexual freedom or gender equality, every attempt by marginalized people to live by the identity or morality they choose for themselves. Think of all the things once deemed inappropriate: divorce, pregnant women appearing in public, women breastfeeding in public, unmarried people having sex or openly living together, co-ed dormitories, advertisements for tampons, advertisements for condoms, legalized abortion, people being openly gay, people being trans, gay marriage.
It goes without saying no one should have to put up with unwanted sexual attention. Quin, for all his clumsiness and creepiness and blinkeredness, wants to treat sex as an acknowledged part of human experience, and for all the discomfort he causes his accusers, Margot senses in those women something in league with the long dishonorable American tradition of sexual disapproval. The world the great feminist critic Ellen Willis described in her ’90s essay “Villains and Victims” has come around again: “The complexities of male-female relations […] are flattened to caricatures of villains and victims; the radical demand for equality in personal life is displaced onto a profoundly conservative appeal for law and order.”
Finding herself in one of those discussions that happened again and again and again after the Harvey Weinstein story broke, angry discussions in which monsters and fools were often judged to be one and the same, Margot hears another woman decry: “the women trying to defend those creeps,” and later chastises herself for not standing up to her, not telling her, of Quin, “Over days and weeks and months, he helped me feel that I was part of humanity, and not with his kindness alone; it was his silliness, his humor, his dirtiness that rekindled my spirit.”
Margot understands — as we can assume her creator does — that claiming the autonomy to decide your own sexual identity cannot be reconciled with the insistence, made in the name of feminist solidarity, that women are essentially powerless and at the mercy of the male oppressor. “When I say to my colleagues,” Margot says,
that the women should have just told Quin to stop, that I had told him to stop and had made him stop, they inevitably tell me that the power was disproportionately his, and that even if in theory the women could have pushed back they should not be expected to, they shouldn’t have to. I get aggravated then and splutter about female agency versus infantilization, etc. I say, yes, he acted badly. I was angry at him, too. But did he deserve to lose his job, his right to work, his honor as a human? Did he have to be so completely and utterly crushed?
To read that paragraph is to feel yourself torn between bone-deep weariness and rising exasperation. Here is the impossible position of those who dared to ask the questions Margot asks in the lines quoted above and found themselves answered with an automatic “yes,” with the insistence that nothing could possibly be worse. Here is the laziness of the argument made to Margot, the expectation that life is fair and that it’s unreasonable to expect an adult to stand up for herself, unreasonable even to expect that the accused might be afforded due process and unreasonable to expect accusers’ stories to be verified. Above all, the paragraph contains the feeling of being sick to death of the discussions like this, of discourse conducted in an atmosphere where it is assumed there is one right way of thinking and anything else is a sop to rapists and abusers.
Gaitskill is writing here beyond the hardened either-or parameters into which the public discussion of these issues has settled into post-Weinstein. That does not mean that the critic who admires Gaitskill’s choice is free to ignore the terms in which her book will be received and likely discussed. It demands we recognize that a writer refusing to accede to these terms is one who’s taking a chance. And I think we need to put Gaitskill’s gutsiness in context, even if the history we are talking about seems too recent to need recapitulation.
While I was reading This Is Pleasure, I thought back to the weeks and months in which it’s set, a time when the flow of stories about who-was-now-being-accused-of-what seemed endless. And I thought of what didn’t get said at that time, of the private conversations I had with women friends, most of them 40 or older, nearly all of them writers. What I heard from those women was frustration and something close to fear. They were pleased that real predators were being brought to justice. But as revelation gave way to accusation, some of those accusations made anonymously, and as things like an untoward remark were given the same weight as assault, I listened to my friends talking about how they felt they could no longer be honest when writing about their own sexual experience, how they felt their public reputations and maybe their careers would be in jeopardy were they to criticize #MeToo. I heard them wonder if maybe they had to go back to their blogs and the archives of publications they had written for to delete pieces which could now be misread and used against them as fodder for a rapidly growing public anger. As they described it to me, these women were not experiencing anything that felt like freedom. Their craft and their art, they believed, were now subject to edicts which, if disobeyed, would cost them both professionally and personally.
The height of all this was the furor over the Shitty Media Men List, compiled by Moira Donegan, in which women were invited to anonymously add the names of men with whom they had had bad experiences or heard that others had. The charges on the list ranged from rape to “weird ‘lunch’ dates” (and prompted one man named in the list, the filmmaker Stephen Elliott, to sue). The list at first circulated privately and its defenders later insisted on that point, as if its eventual public release were not, in the digital age, inevitable. Before Donegan had identified herself as the progenitor of the list, it was announced that the writer Katie Roiphe was preparing an article for Harper’s on #MeToo. A rumor, that turned out to be false, circulated that Roiphe would out Donegan. The reaction was fierce. Writers threatened to pull their pieces from Harper’s. Yet amid the concern for Donegan’s anonymity, scarcely a word of concern was voiced for the men on the list, accused with no way to confront their accuser, no knowledge of who the accuser was.
When Roiphe’s piece appeared, it spoke a great deal about women like my friends, who felt the moment was such that they could not speak freely. On the editorial pages of The New York Times, Michelle Goldberg wasn’t having it. “Having run afoul of a Twitter mob or two myself, I know the feeling,” she wrote. “But I also know that a virtual mob isn’t the same as a live one. The torches aren’t real, and in some cases neither are the people.” Forget the nonsensical logic that a threat made under a created persona is somehow not real. Would Goldberg have been so blithe to the women threatened in Gamergate, or to the female film critics I know who routinely receive death threats and rape threats whenever they pan the latest lousy superhero movie? Ironically, in the process of dismissing online mobs, Goldberg was alarmed by the possible outing of Moira Donegan, who had not only created an online mob but one that had managed to cast a cloud of suspicion over people not given the means to defend themselves. And then Goldberg did something remarkable. “Faced with thousands of incensed Twitter users,” Goldberg wrote, “you might feel it’s dangerous to say that #MeToo has gone overboard, but in the real world the men who still run things will congratulate you for your courage. Left-wing Twitter mobs are a great gift to the right, since they make defending the status quo seem transgressive and brave.” What’s appalling about that passage isn’t just that having the right to know your accuser and to have his or her stories verified is part of the status quo; it’s that with one rhetorical flourish Goldberg reduced all women who criticized #MeToo to dupes for the right-wing patriarchy. In the process, she conveniently ignored the power of the women who had actually brought down some of the predatory men who “run things” by speaking out to two other women, namely Goldberg’s New York Times colleagues Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who broke the Harvey Weinstein piece. In conclusion, Goldberg asked, “Certainly, social media is a grotesque netherworld of bad faith and cruelty. But as ugly as the intellectual environment is online, if people are truly whispering their discomfort with #MeToo, why are they so easy to hear?” What Goldberg was saying to the women nervous about earning the enmity of an online mob or the disfavor that could affect their careers was the same condescending thing generations of men had said to other upset women: “There, there dear. You’re imagining it.”
I focus on this to emphasize that I think simply by acting like a novelist in a time that encourages pamphleteering, Mary Gaitskill has acted bravely. Once it would just have been doing her job. If Toni Morrison were writing The Bluest Eye today, would she be allowed to show the terrible empathy she does to Cholly after he rapes his own daughter? Would her novelist’s determination to understand even the worst be seen as a marking her in need of reeducation?
There is honor in being the wrong writer for a dishonorable moment, and by that I mean a writer who confronts that moment’s hypocrisies. There seems to be a belief floating around right now, real but unspoken, that in order to take sexual violence seriously, in order to bring perpetrators to justice, in order to establish consent as a must, sex itself, primal and mysterious and inconvenient and ever ready to reduce our lives to anarchy, must be pursued and practiced as something that combines the legally binding nature of a contract with the strict formality of a Japanese tea ceremony. “Increasingly it seemed that the aversion was to adult sexual life itself,” Joan Didion wrote in 1972. That aversion to reality is an unthinkable choice for Gaitskill.
Whether the moment of sexual panic we find ourselves in is passing or we are in the process of establishing new expectations for sex is the open question that This Is Pleasure leaves us with. At the book’s end, Quin, imagining, despite all evidence, that his life will start again, imagining “life is big enough for any story,” takes in the sights and sounds as he walks down a New York City street:
I walk in a world of sales racks and flavored refreshments, marching crowds, broken streets, and steam pouring through the cracks. Jackhammers, roaring buses, women striding into traffic, knifelike in their high, sharp heels, past windows full of faces, products, bright admonishments, light, and dust.
The echo is there for anyone to hear it, the familiar wonder of Frank O’Hara’s great poem, “A Step Away from Them”:
It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
… Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
are cats playing in sawdust.
And so we are left to ponder, is Quin, capable of echoing O’Hara’s reverie of city life after the ordeal he has passed through, in denial about the world he inhabits, or undimmed in his ability to take pleasure in it, to see its familiarities as wonders? Illusory or not, Gaitskill leaves us with the insistence of pleasure as necessity.