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

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. ]