BASS 2020: Mary Gaitskill, “This is Pleasure” from The New Yorker 7/8/2019

David Burliuk: Woman Leading a Horse
Much of what happens in the story is flippant and ridiculous – some of it is sublimated cruelty, both on the part of Quinn and some of his accusers. But underneath that the story it’s so mixed and unclear, with real tenderness and wish for connection shining or at least trying to shine through the murk. I wanted to write from this place of uncertainty because it seemed necessary in a climate of total certainty from all sides. I am not in any way against moral certainty; that too is necessary. But fiction for me exists at least in part to describe the moment when you are not certain, you are just feeling all kinds of contradictory things, and reality is clear but prismatic: several things at once. In this case, the moment before the hammer falls.

Mary Gaitskill, Contributor Note

The two characters who tell this story in alternating sections embody the very decision the story demands of the reader. One character is absolutely certain; the other is awash in uncertainty. Because the choice isn’t between guilt or innocence, but between choosing a hill to die on, or living with the queasy feeling that there is no hill.  

Quin is a high-end book editor from New York by way of London. Margot met him years before as a job applicant. They ran into each other, and eventually became friends after a bizarre start to their relationship.

The interview was strange too, whimsical and then unexpectedly cutting. He asked a lot of questions that seemed irrelevant and personal, including whether or not I had a boyfriend. He used my name more often than he needed to, and with an oddly intimate intonation that, in combination with his British accent, seemed not only precise but proper. That proper quality was somehow confusing: when he interrupted me to say, “Margot? Margot, I don’t think your voice is your best asset. What is your best asset?” I was so discomfited and uncertain that I didn’t know whether to be offended or not. I don’t recall my reply, but I know that I answered abruptly and uncleverly, and then the interview was over.
I got another, better job, but still, when Quin’s name came up in conversation, and it often did – he had a reputation that was somewhat notorious, yet unclear, as if people didn’t know what to make of him, despite how long he’d been around – I vividly remembered his voice and my discomfiture and wondered why the feeling had stayed with me.

Now, twenty years later, Quin is being sued by several parties for some form of sexual harrassment, and is on a #MeToo list of high-ranking abusers. As a result he’s lost his job and will probably find it very difficult to land another one. Margot takes some heat for standing by him, even as she runs down the list of questionable behaviors she has heard of, or has been subjected to herself.

And, yeah, this guy has done some pretty questionable behaviors. He thrust his thumb as a woman and dared her to bite it. He spanked a woman in his office. He touched a woman’s breast while she was trying on a t-shirt. He asked a woman he’d just met at an airport in between planes to tell him what she thought about when she masturbates. And then there’s his first lunch with Margot herself:

We were seated at a deep banquette: Quin told the waiter that he wanted to sit on the same side as me, so that we could talk more easily, and then he was there, with his place setting. I’m sure he didn’t say this right away, but in my memory he did: “Your voice is so much stronger now! You are so much stronger now! You speak straight from the clit!” And —as if it were the most natural thing in the world — he reached between my legs. “NO!” I said, and shoved my hand in his face, palm out, like a traffic cop. I knew it would stop him. Even a horse will usually obey a hand held in its face like that, and yet out weighs a human by nearly a thousand pounds. Looking mildly astonished, Quin sat back and said, “I like the strength and clarity of your no.” “Good,” I replied….But the main thing I remember from that night was the expression on his face as he retreated from my upraised palm, the surprised obedience that was somehow grounded, more genuine than his reaching hand had been.
The next day he sent me flowers and the friendship began.

That horse metaphor gets a lot of mileage in the story. What’s really interesting is that these aren’t the women who are suing him, or who signed the list.

Quin, of course, does not see himself as an abuser or harrasser. He’s never had sex with any of the women; he’s never cheated on his wife. He thinks of his accusers as friends: he’s helped some of them get better jobs, offered career and personal advice, and comforted them. Yes, he’s a flirt, and yes, he gets a little outrageous. But he stops on request. He has no idea that forcing someone to make that request might itself be harrassment.

I used to know, via email, someone like this, though there was no sexual component at all. He just liked to pull minor pranks on strangers to make his wait in the supermarket line more enjoyable. He’d move the conveyor belt divider to include some of the items from the person in front of him, or behind him. Or he’d ask one of them to pay for his order, or tell the cashier he gets a discount because it’s Thursday. He thinks it’s great fun when people are confused or try to react with some degree of courtesy. I still have the email describing this. I replied, “You, sir, are a menace to the timid, the easily confused, and those who rely on formula responses.  While the latter is fair game, I pity the former.”  He insisted that, because he stopped immediately if anyone showed distress, and most people laughed and appreciated the humor, he was performing a public service. As one of the timid and easily confused, I disagree.

One of Quin’s descriptions feels like something more sinister to me:

I remember teasing Margot by telling her that I’d convinced a woman I’d just met, during a layover in Houston, to share with me what she thought about while making herself come. An amusing silence emanated from the phone, and then: “She didn’t slap the shit out of you?” “No,” I answered pleasantly. “I was very polite. I led into it slowly. I was just about to get on my flight, we had a nice talk, she told me a lot about herself. It was just, you know, ships in the night, we won’t see each other again, so. …” …”And so many people , if they are honest, really wanted to answer those questions period you just have to ask in the right way.”

One of the things we learned a few decades ago about child molesters is that they aren’t creepy guys in trenchcoats, but are initially kind and sympathetic listeners to children they sense feel alone and unheard; they progress from normal interactions to perverted ones by degrees, slowly desensitizing the child to strangeness. The children are led. Quin seems to have adapted the technique for adults.

But adults are supposed to know better. Adults are supposed to say stop, to walk away. And we’re back at that point again.

The details of these incidents are telling. When he relates the spanking incident, he starts off with a paddle, then it becomes a spoon or a spatula, and finally a butter knife. Does he not remember? Or does he try to mitigate the incident by shrinking the object used, which is kind of crazy, because it doesn’t matter if he used a cricket bat or a feather.

Another incident with Margot is telling. They’re going dancing at a club, and he takes her shopping bag so she’ll be less encumbered.

I agreed, and then he said that he thought I should also dispense with the purse, because, although it was small and very nice, it made me look less free. “But I need it,” I said. “I’ve got my wallet and lipstick in there.” “Then let me carry them,” he answered, “here.” He indicated an inner pocket of his jacket.
I hesitated.
“Your effervescent tonight,” he said. “But that purse takes something away. It makes you more mundane, less delightful. I wanted to see you walk through the room giving off an aura of freedom.”
I said, smiling, “but if I give you my wallet I’m not free. Because you’ve got my wallet.”
He was right, though. I would have looked and felt more free without the purse. Especially while we were dancing; there was a good teacher, and we danced for hours.

I would argue that the last thing freedom is, is coercing someone into seeing freedom the way you define it rather than the way they define it, whether they realize they were coerced or not.

In the end Margot has no wisdom to give us. She realizes that even though she’s been hanging on to this “I told him to stop and he stopped” defense, she has more in common with the accusers than she was at first ready to admit.

I was like the women who didn’t stop him and who acted like his friends even as they grew angrier and angrier. It wasn’t because he had more power than I did; that didn’t really matter. And it wasn’t because I’m like a horse. I don’t know why I behaved the way I did, and I kept doing it; and he kept doing it.

It’s a perplexing story, kind of frustrating, but compelling. It’s long – it’s being sold as a 96-page novella – but reads quickly, if emotionally. I was a bit nervous coming into this story, since Gaitskill has scared me in the past, and not in a fun way. But this was excellent, the kind of story that doesn’t change your life, doesn’t even clarify your thinking, but helps you outline some of the problems a little bit better. Uncertainty can be a good thing, if only because it gives you some breathing room while you’re looking for certainty.

* * *

Other takes on this story can be found at:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “…[O]ne of literature’s best uses is that it allows us to look at a difficult issue from the outside and analyze it. The best proof of this story’s artfulness is how easily it can be turned to a non-artful use.”

Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory: “So how should we judge Quin. How does society solve a problem that walks the razor’s edge of ethicality?”

Jon Duelfer at The Inquiring Reader: “The question that remains is this: does the punishment fit the crime?”

Video: Mary Gaitskill reads the first seven pages and discusses the story at the Strand bookstore

12 responses to “BASS 2020: Mary Gaitskill, “This is Pleasure” from The New Yorker 7/8/2019

  1. I am troubled, uneasy, queasy. A most difficult read. Gaitskill clearly succeeded in what she set out to do, present the complexity. It is not black and white in a great number of cases. It is difficult to serve justice, feel good about it.

  2. This story is a great example of why I am a proud centrist. Centrism doesn’t have to mean being limp and in the middle, where two sides beat you back and forth. Centrism can actually be to one side or the other of “center.” This story is EXTREMELY fair to men, maybe too fair, but that doesn’t mean it’s without a position or shrugging its shoulders about “what is truth?”

  3. Also, that guy who does the things he thinks are so hilarious is the WORST. Nobody should ever laugh at someone who isn’t funny, because he’ll only remember the one person who laughed at him because they felt sorry for the guy. Like those guys who hold something out to you and then yank it away. That’s never funny, and you’re a terrible person.

    • I’m glad someone else feels that way. I’ve long suspected that those who proclaim themselves “free spirits” or insist on their freedom from routine and convention are more or less those who want to do whatever they want, and any time they run into someone who prefers a less outlandish approach to life, they try to “convert” us or dismiss us as humorless and dull. Freedom is not, therefore, free for everyone, just them.

  4. Pingback: BASS2020: “This Is Pleasure” by Mary Gaitskill – Auxiliary Memory

  5. I thought “This Is Pleasure” was excellent. Quin is such a well-developed character, but he is creepy. Ultimately, the #MeToo movement is about men using their power and position to manipulate women. Quin is the ultimate manipulator and usually gets what he wants. He justifies this by believing he is giving much in return. And that might be true. But isn’t that another kind of prostitution? On the other hand, isn’t friendship all about mutual giving? But sometimes it’s taking. In our relationships are we always wanting something? Aren’t we always willing to barter?

    You know what would have taken this story to another level? If we heard from a third woman, one who consciously used Quin, one who was more powerful than Quin in manipulating people.

    • Yeah, Gaitskill has really made it hard to feel certain. Ironically (or intentionally, more likely) that’s exactly the position a lot of the women are in: am I being harassed, or is this just good clean fun?
      Nice to have you back!

  6. Pingback: BASS 2020: Of Mythologies and Misbehaving Men, Among Other Things | A Just Recompense

  7. Given the two thirds of stories I have read in BASS 2020 so far, I thought that this is by far the best story. Not necessarily for the content, which as you say won’t “change your life,” but for the crispness of Gaitskill’s writing and the vibrant characters. I honestly considered this to be on a higher “level” of writing than almost all of the other stories so far, which I think struggle to be moving.

    This story may have a slight advantage being that it’s a novella. It has much more space to develop characters and the plot than the more standard short stories in the collection. But it’s hard to deny the expertise of The New Yorker’s writers. Emma Cline’s “The Nanny” stood out as well.

    As far as the content goes, I thought Quin was just a straightforward weirdo. Even though Gaitskill presents the situation as if there could be two sides and Margot has “no wisdom to give us” as you say, to me I think Gaitskill abhors Quin and what he represents. When he says the line about “comforting” Margot’s abuser, I imagined Gaitskill sealing the argument against him and closing the book. I can’t imagine any other reason she would put that in there.

    Here is my take on the story: https://inquiringreader.org/texts/2021-01-18-this-is-pleasure/.

    • I think he comes across as weirder than he would be in real life, because the weird stuff is showcased. The great thing the story does is it makes it hard to really come down on one side or the other. Is he really weird? Does he just think he’s entertaining? Is he using playfulness as a cover for planned viciousness? I keep rotating through all three opinions.
      So glad you’re still working through BASS!

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