Mary Gaitskill: “The Other Place” The New Yorker February 14, 2011


This story can be read online.

“The Other Place” is creepy. That’s what I came away with – wow, even that nice mild-mannered real estate agent with the tremor, the one who helped me shovel my driveway last month, he has a secret place in his mind where sex and violence intersect, where he enjoys the idea of attacking women. And a couple of times, he acted on it, though it never got too far. And now his son is out fly-fishing and god knows what he’s thinking when he brings in a catch. Is he picturing my teenage daughter on the hook? Yeah, it’s a creepy story.

It’s also fascinating in how humdrum-normal the real estate agent (who doesn’t get a name; I always think it’s important when a writer chooses to do that, or at least doesn’t think of the character by name when creating him or her) thinks his early life was, when it was punctuated by fighting divorced parents and his mother’s admission that she was a whore. A classy whore, an upscale escort, actually, but still, men paid her for sex, and the guy accepts this as normal. So I’m not sure it’s that big a deal when he accepts his “other place” – where violence against women is sexy and arousing – is normal. And that his teenage escapades of peeping on a classmate as she slept, and attempting to abduct a woman at gunpoint, are normal. This is not a normal guy, no matter what he thinks. The idea of “normal” has indeed broadened since the 50’s, but it hasn’t broadened this far.

The climactic event, involving him acting out his impulses against a woman who, unbeknownst to him, has little to lose, does not ring all that true. It could happen that way, sure. It could also happen that he shoots her in the head. It could happen that she shoots him in the head. I found this story unconvincing, arbitrary, and a little sensationalist. Not to mention how tired I am of those who worship fly-fishing. I don’t really know the difference between regular fishing and fly-fishing. If someone wants to consider it an art, or a Zen thing, that’s fine. Fact is, you’re still killing an animal with your bare hands, and while I love to eat fish (I had a piece of salmon last night that was truly fantastic) and while I’m fine with fishing for sport or for food, I just wish fly fishers would stop telling me what a soul-changing experience it is. (I’m a little cranky, I think).

What really got me, however – in fact it drove the story from my mind completely – was the interview at The Book Bench. It’s an odd interview, with Ms. Gaitskill alternating between “I don’t know” and disagreeing with the interviewer. In the same way that reading the story made me feel wary and creepy, reading the interview made me feel like I was witnessing a fight. It was actually more disturbing to see this model of aggression in action than to read the story.

For example:

In “The Other Place,” you take on a very difficult subject: the root of men’s violence toward women. It’s a subject that most people would rather not have to confront. What compelled you to write about it?
I don’t agree that it’s a subject most people would rather not confront—on the contrary, it seems to me a subject that people are extremely eager to confront in the form of fantasy and drama.

I’m a little tired of the primetime television schedule, what’s playing at the Multiplex and what books are on the Best Seller list being read as a description of our national psyche. That’s like saying the Tea Party reflects the values of the voters. Or Clarence Thomas is the voice of black America. More people buy James Patterson (and I have a shelf full of Jonathan Kellerman, Faye Kellerman, and Stephen White) than literary fiction. Doesn’t mean that’s the key to understanding the National Psyche. Because – news flash – there is no National Psyche. So please don’t psychoanalyze me from the Neilson ratings.

Later, Gaitskill says, “I can’t take the reader into the mind of a serial killer, because I don’t know that mind. But I can take the reader into the mind of somebody who harbors some of those feelings, and people are interested in it because they recognize those feelings.” Except the mind she takes us into is a character, a fictional character, and unless she’s saying the character is a representation of a person who told her these thoughts, this isn’t taking me into anyone’s mind but her own. And even if she did interview someone to get this character, she’s relying on what someone told her, not on what that person actually is thinking and feeling. If the mind is her own, that’s fine, more power to her, but own up to it. They’re her thoughts, not mine.

I’m surprised I’m so resentful of this interview; I feel aggression pouring out of it, and I respond with my own aggression. That’s how it works, isn’t it. I didn’t object to the story – it was creepy, to show “normal” people harboring these feelings about wanting to do violence, about the crossover between sex and violence, especially in the young. But while it wasn’t a story that I particularly enjoyed, I didn’t feel insulted by it. The interview, however, made me disappreciate Mary Gaitskill (note: it did not make me want to do any physical violence to her at all – god help me, I never want to be in the same room as her – just to tell her to shut the fuck up). I find that fascinating – because it is another form of violence, and her form is to make mincemeat out of interviewers, perhaps. And mine is to react to being toyed with, to react to superiority with vengeful impulses as real as the character’s. But guns – or knives or sharks – don’t enter into it.

[Addendum: I’ve re-read the story during my BASS 2012 reading. It’s still a creepy story. The creepiness is well-done, but I still feel it’s somewhat manipulative. In a bizarre comparison: Project Runway S10 just ended this past week. Some of the runway models were made up with yellow/green lipstick, dotted eyebrows, blackened eyebrows, and silver-leaf in their slicked-back hair. It made no sense at all; it was purely an attempt to be “edgy” and “modern” and “artsy.” It was actually quite ugly. I’m all for artistic effects on the runway – it is more like an art exhibit than a clothing store – but this was shock value, not artistic value. I feel the same way about this story.

Of course, maybe I’m just too prissy to appreciate this kind of story. I can live with that.

While the first time I read this I was distracted by the author interview, this time I was perhaps distracted by the news of yet another mass shooting, this one in a Wisconsin day spa. Bad timing all around. But if I’m going to try to approach Mary Gaitskill again, I think it’d better be with another story, as this one isn’t working out too well for me. ]


4 responses to “Mary Gaitskill: “The Other Place” The New Yorker February 14, 2011

  1. I think you are narrowminded. The interview was not a fight at all. Gaitskill was being honest. She does not know what it feels like to act upon the impulse to murder someone. Are you suggesting that a fiction writer has to have direct experience with everything they write about? If you want her to shut the fuck up, why do you read her work? It was not written as an insult to anyone. It was written because it raises the issue that is present in many of her stories: sex and aggression are bound up, mixed together -that is something that Freud discovered a hundred years ago. She is not saying the protagonist is normal. Does being a realtor make you “normal”? I think you need to read the story again. I know you will probably say that my opinion is aggressive -simply because I disagree. That, as I said, makes you narrowminded.

  2. Pingback: BASS 2012: The Last Page | A Just Recompense

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