31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 5: “The Agonized Face” by Mary Gaitskill

May 5, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Don’t Cry

Don't_Cry_Mary_GaitskillMary Gaitskill’s story “The Agonized Face” takes place during “the annual literary festival in Toronto,” where the first-person narrator, a divorced mother who works as a journalist, has been assigned to write “something light and funny on the social scene.” The festival, as she describes it in frankly overheated terms, is “dazzling … in its variety,” a “social blaze of little heads rolling by in a ball of light.” The narrator, who admits she “arrived at the festival tense and already prone to aggravation,” marvels at the subjects the talking heads expound upon, subjects rife with the kind of cultural clichés that proliferate in literary journals and newspaper arts columns: “No one should ever write about the Holocaust again!” or “Irony is ruining our culture!”

Here it might be prudent to take a step back, because the subject of irony is germane to Gaitskill’s writing in general, and to “The Agonized Face” in particular. Gaitskill has always used irony as a weapon, and her writing is typically savage, though her later work – the novel Veronica and the stories collected in Don’t Cry – layer their ironies in more complex ways, with the authorial psyche disappearing further and further into the background. These are fictions through which a reader is well advised to tread cautiously: they are strewn with traps and landmines.

On its surface, “The Agonized Face” tells the story of the narrator’s experience at the Toronto literary festival, where she encounters a feminist author – “one of the good-looking types with expensive clothes who look younger than they are (which is irritating, even though it shouldn’t be), the kind of person who plays with her hair when she talks, who always seems to be asking you to like her.” The narrator views the feminist author as less serious than some of the other feminists in attendance at the festival, who might in fact have been “annoyed” by her. The feminist author “had apparently been a prostitute at some point in her colorful youth” and “had gone on record describing prostitutes as fighters against the patriarchy,” an intellectual pose the narrator characterizes as “stupid.”

The core of Gaitskill’s narrative involves the narrator’s examination of a “particularly aggravating” reading the feminist author gives, which she opens by discussing her dissatisfaction at the way she has been characterized in the brochure used as promotion by the festival organizers. Her author write-up focuses on “the most sensational aspects of her life” – her stint as a prostitute, her time in a mental facility – while ignoring her other accomplishments (“I am forty-five years old and now I teach at Impala University West!” she exclaims). Although the feminist author does not deny the veracity of any of the details in her past, she claims that focusing exclusively on this bygone time in her life is at once “salacious and puritanical,” denying her humanity in all its “complexity and tenderness.”

To this point, things are relatively straightforward. The feminist author espouses a fairly traditional ideological line, with which the narrator finds easy sympathy and rapport. It is what the feminist author does next that causes problems.

Having voiced her concerns about the reduction of a human being to a set of provocative and titillating line items in a biographical sketch, she then proceeds to read a story she wrote about a middle-aged woman who attends a party “held in a bar decorated with various sex toys.” After a flirtatious dialogue with one of the male party guests, she invites the man home with her, where “she alternates between fellating him and chatting cleverly while he tries to leave.”

The story the feminist author reads disturbs the narrator intensely, in large part because it centres on a woman’s sexuality without judgment or condemnation. The story does not proselytize, nor does it pause to examine its protagonist’s inner pain, the wound at her core that must be present (or so the narrator assumes) to allow her to take a man home from a party and perform oral sex on him. What is missing from the story, in the narrator’s conception, is “the agonized face” that all wounded women – that is, all women – must have.

The narrator, who admits she is “not really a feminist” herself, worries about the pundits on television who suggest that sexually open feminists have turned young women into “sluts,” a viewpoint that is opposed by others who want to coddle young women to prevent any harm from coming to them. “I do know this,” the narrator says:

When I hear that feminism is overprotecting girls, I am very sympathetic to it. When I see my fashion-conscious ten-year-old in her nylon nightie, peering spellbound before the beguiling screen at the fleeting queendom of some twelve-year-old manufactured pop star with the wardrobe of a hooker, a jerry-rigged personality, and bulimia, it seems to me that she has a protection deficit that I may not be able to compensate for. When she comes home wild with tears because she lost the spelling contest, or her ex–best friend called her fat, or a boy said she’s not the prettiest girl in class, and I press her to me, comforting her, even as that day’s AMBER Alert flashes in my brain, it is hard for me to imagine this girl as “overprotected.”

There are a number of things to note here, not the least of them being the narrator’s intellectual incoherence. This is manifest in the ease with which she slides from visions of her daughter losing a spelling bee to images of “that day’s AMBER Alert” about a missing, possibly abducted, child. And while the motherly impulse to protect a vulnerable young child is understandable – indeed, it is the responsibility of any parent – note that there is no acceptance of agency on the narrator’s part. Her ten-year-old daughter is prey to the depredations of television and fashion, but the mother nonetheless buys the nylon nighties for her, and allows her to watch the “twelve-year-old manufactured pop star” perform.

In a subsequent scene, the narrator recalls attending the taping of a television talk show in which two rape victims confront their rapist. The narrator approves of the program because, unlike the feminist author’s reading, it gives free rein to the agonized face. “But wait!” she says. “The feminist author was not talking about rape, was she? Being a prostitute is not the same as being raped, is it? And of course they are not the same. But for the purposes of my discussion here … they are close enough!”

Later in the story, the narrator listens to a Somali author read a selection from his critically acclaimed novel. The passage is frankly sexist, verging on misogynist, but the narrator feels that the author, being Somali, can get away with it, because in his own experience he has encountered the agonized face of oppression. This is the difference between his reading and that of the feminist author: “glib acceptance does not respect the profound nature of the agonized face.”

And here should be noted one of the story’s key ironies, arguably the key that unlocks how to read “The Agonized Face.” The biographical details of the feminist author’s life – the sex work, the teaching, work as a proofreader – closely mirror those of her creator. And, as Matthew Sharpe has pointed out, the story she reads shares details with Gaitskill’s own story “Turgor” (right down to the sex toys at the party). This, it might be suggested, is the author’s way of disavowing approval for her protagonist, of suggesting to the reader that the narrator is not someone to be altogether trusted.

Yet for all that, the narrator of “The Agonized Face” is not entirely unsympathetic. Her ideological approach may be highly confused, but it proceeds from a pure impulse: a desire to protect her daughter from the evils of the world.

A scene in flashback involving the narrator in bed with her husband offers another clue as to how to read the story. The imagery is animalistic and vaguely sadomasochistic – the narrator is pictured as an animal being led on a chain by her husband. In sexual congress, the couple roll around “laughing at ourselves, laughing at the agonized face.” This scene takes place before the birth of the narrator’s daughter, before the narrator’s own divorce. Before, that is, her own wounds have been allowed to develop and fester. The narrator insists throughout the story that the feminist author’s sin of omission is in not respecting the agonized face; it is hard not to presume that the face the narrator is referring to is her own.

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