31 Days of Stories, Day 29: “The Blanket” by Mary Gaitskill

August 29, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

From Because They Wanted To.

c12224Like Barbara Gowdy, Mary Gaitskill traffics in the extremes of human behaviour, specifically human sexual behaviour. Her characters are usually emotionally scarred in some way, and their psychic conflicts frequently find sexual expression: fetishism, S&M, and sex trade workers all make repeated appearances in her stories.

“The Blanket” focuses on Valerie, a 36-year-old woman who ends a two-year period of celibacy when she meets 24-year-old Michael. “[S]ex with Michael was like a solid left hook,” Gaitskill writes. In the rest of his person he is “generous and slightly inept”; he “couldn’t actually provide for her, but she didn’t need him to do that.” The opening of “The Blanket” is a testament in microcosm to Gaitskill’s abilities as a writer. In three tightly calibrated, densely packed paragraphs, the author conveys her characters in all their complex humanity, laying bare their respective motives and capabilities. Gaitskill is above all an austerely precise writer: there isn’t a single word wasted, and her metaphors are all carefully chosen and judiciously deployed.

Gaitskill is also a fierce writer, not only in subject, but in technique. Her writing is “like a solid left hook,” simultaneously tensile and febrile. So much so, in fact, that it is often easy to overlook the subtlety in her stories, the nuance and slight shifts in tone or emotion. Until they reel back and punch you in the jaw.

The movement of “The Blanket” is a perfect example of this. The initial description of Valerie and Michael is innocuous enough, and when in the story’s early stages Valerie suggests that the two engage in sexual role-playing, the reader accepts the situation in stride and moves on. But it is well to pause over the language that Gaitskill employs in these early stages. When Valerie makes her suggestion, Michael finds the idea embarrassing and intriguing: “he felt her vulnerability, hidden and palpitant.” The final adjective – hardly a common usage in the modern English lexicon – with its suggestions of fever and rapidity, should give a reader pause. Coming on the heels of a description of the couple’s first encounter, during which Valerie displays “the tremulous look of a cowed animal,” the idea that there is something roiling beneath the surface of her character’s outward demeanour should be fairly evident.

What is “hidden and palpitant” in Valerie is the fact that she was once raped, a confession that she makes to Michael on the eve of his departure for an out-of-town gig with the band he plays in. Before he comes to her house, Valerie tells Michael that she is “too sensitive” to have sex, and asks whether he can respect her feelings.

In a soft voice, he said yes.

“Are you sure? Because I don’t want to have some ridiculous scene.”

He swallowed voluptuously. “I’m sure.”

The adverb “voluptuously” is another inspired word choice, indicating as it does an ironic distance between Michael’s words and his (unacknowledged) intentions, a distance that will become eminently clear in the “ridiculous scene” that ensues.

When Valerie confesses to being raped, “Michael [sits] up and [smiles]. ‘Yeah? What happened? What did he make you do?’” Michael mistakes Valerie’s confession for another suggested fantasy, going so far as to drive the vulnerable woman to a secluded spot so as to act out forced sex that she clearly doesn’t want. Although Michael comforts Valerie, saying, “I’m sorry anything bad ever happened to you,” he also admits to getting “a charge” out of the notion of rape. “It’s like the fantasy thing. Like, right now, some guy is making some girl do something really gross. It’s weird.”

For Michael, the line between fantasy and reality is permeable; for Valerie, there is a clear distinction between the sexual role-play she engages in, and the terrible experience in her past. For Valerie, the rape is nothing at all like “the fantasy thing.” The miscommunication between the couple results in a scene of incipient violence that strikes with the force of a sucker punch, all the more because the reader’s sympathies are divided between the two characters. Throughout the story, Valerie’s worldliness is juxtaposed with Micheal’s extreme naïveté; the latter is repeatedly referred to as a child, and his default response to the events in the story is one of bafflement. When Valerie lashes out at him, calling him a “spoiled, stupid, ignorant little shit,” it is clear that she is correct in her assessment in the context, yet Gaitskill is careful not to demonize the man, and the final scene in the story has a surprising tenderness.

Throughout this brief tale, Gaitskill adeptly manipulates the reader’s sympathies and allows both her characters to appear in a positive and a negative light. The subtle involutions of the relationship that Gaitskill sets up are almost Jamesian, but the powerful fierceness and concision of the voice is unique to her.

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