By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, Nov. 2, 2015
WHEN THE WRITER Mary Gaitskill was a child in the 1950s, she was once taken to a roller-skating rink. She looked around and burst into tears. She didn’t understand why everybody was wearing the same thing, those poodle skirts and poodle hairdos.
‘‘It meant something, and I didn’t know what it was — it felt frightening to me,’’ she told me recently. ‘‘I thought, My God, this is too complicated.’’ It was a feeling that lasted until adulthood — a sense that people were speaking to one another in a code she couldn’t decipher. Out of this elemental confusion, Gaitskill has produced a body of work so acutely observant of human behavior that it’s frequently described in the language of violation: a vivisection, a dental drill, a flogging. There is very rough sex in her books, and characters who binge eat and rip out their hair. But the real danger is elsewhere: It’s in glances and gestures and sudden silences, in craving contact and being rebuffed. ‘‘I wanted to communicate and connect,’’ Gaitskill said when I asked why she became a writer. ‘‘I simply didn’t seem able to do it.’’
I first met Gaitskill on an August afternoon at her apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She is beautiful, startlingly so — straight-backed and contained, her body a wick of tensile energy, her hair a silvery blond. She offered me sparkling water and hunted down a lime — ‘‘I can’t serve it to you naked,’’ she said, quietly aggrieved — and for two hours we talked across her kitchen table. She has a new novel out this month, ‘‘The Mare,’’ and she seemed jittery about its reception.
Her apartment is a jumble of tatty rugs, climbing plants and books (in one pile in the kitchen: a Brassai monograph; ‘‘The Art of Joy,’’ an Italian epic on the pleasures of perversion; and a collection of Peanuts comics). She can’t afford to live in New York on her own, she said, so she shares the place with a roommate — a writer who teaches English at a college and yoga on the side, and who, I suspect, is responsible for the knob of sage on the windowsill and the kitschy Indian decorations.
Gaitskill is friendly, if wary in the way of habitually truthful people trying to stay out of trouble, and slightly irritable. She feels misunderstood, which, of course, she is. For more than two decades, she has been the object of admiration but also titillated curiosity and fear. In 1988, at age 33, Gaitskill published a short-story collection called ‘‘Bad Behavior’’ about speed freaks in love, missed connections between prostitutes and lovelorn johns. The book combined formal elegance, sweetness and sadomasochism, and received a remarkable amount of attention. Rights were immediately sold to a dozen foreign publishers; Michiko Kakutani praised its ‘‘radar-perfect detail’’ in The New York Times; and this darkly funny chronicle of thwarted sexual adventure became something of a bible for college women. Four books followed, in the same vein — gritty city stories of characters trying, as Oscar Wilde put it, ‘‘to cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul.’’
Gaitskill isn’t scary because she conjures monsters; monsters, she points out, are almost always in fashion. What makes her scary, and what makes her exciting, is her ability to evoke the hidden life, the life unseen, the life we don’t even know we are living. The critic Greil Marcus, a champion of her work, calls her a descendant of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne ‘‘is aware of the hidden chambers in the heart,’’ he told me. ‘‘He is aware that there are things that people won’t talk about and there are things that people can’t talk about — and those aren’t the same things. He wants to reveal all those layers.’’ Gaitskill’s fiction unfolds in these psychological spaces; she knows that we, unlike plants, don’t always grow toward the light, that sometimes we cannot even be coaxed toward it.