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.

Book browsing with Mary Gaitskill

March 5, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

One of my favourite authors on:

Roberto Bolaño – “He’s big and important and if you read him your ‘big and important quotient’ goes up 10 points.”

White Noise – “I didn’t like it so much. I feel free to say that because it’s like shooting spitballs at a tank.”

The Little Prince – “When I was in college and I took a French course, we had to read The Little Prince in French. It actually caused me to start blubbering in class.”

Her own work – “[‘An Old Virgin’ is] not bad line by line, it’s got some striking images in it. But, I feel like, mostly, when people call my work turgid and dark, they’re really just not being fair or accurate. But, guilty as charged with that story.”

How to make it as a writer: be a man

January 6, 2010 by · 13 Comments 

The shortlist for the Charles Taylor Prize was released yesterday, and it consists of four books:

  • The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son by Ian Brown
  • Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968–2000 by John English
  • René Lévesque by Daniel Poliquin
  • The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Life of William Randolph Hearst by Kenneth Whyte

Now, if you’re like me, the first thing you’ll notice about this list is that all four books are written by men. Not only that: all four books are written by men writing about men. The authors are all white, all of a certain age, and in all but one case (Brown’s) the books’ subjects are dead white guys.

This is particularly noticeable coming so soon after Publishers Weekly released its list of the ten best books of 2009, not one of which was written by a woman. Much was made of the longlist for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize, which contained 12 names, only two of which were men. Both made it onto the shortlist, and one of them (Linden MacIntyre) went on to win the award. Indeed, in Giller’s 16-year history, the prize has gone to a woman only five times, and there have been only four female honourees (Alice Munro won twice). In a December 30 op-ed piece for The Washington Post, Julianna Baggott points out that there were only two women in Amazon’s top ten for 2009, and four in the top 20.

The raw numbers seem to point to an ingrained institutional sexism, which is odd for an industry supported by women (who statistically consume more books than men) and powered by women (who make up the vast majority of influential acquisitions editors in Canada – think Louise Dennys, Ellen Seligman, Iris Tupholme, Nicole Winstanley, Alana Wilcox, Lynn Henry, Anne Collins, etc.). Baggott does not limit her analysis to a recapitulation of the numbers; instead, she attempts to settle on an explanation as to why books by men get trumpeted more often and more loudly than books by women:

I often hear people exclaiming that they’re astonished that a particular book was written by a man. They seem stunned by the notion that a man could write with emotional intelligence and honesty about our human frailties.

Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be experts on emotion. I’ve never heard anyone remark that they were surprised that a book of psychological depth was written by a woman.

So men get points for simply showing up on the page with a literary effort.

What’s interesting, however, in the Publishers Weekly list is that the books are not only written by men but also have male themes, overwhelmingly. In fact, the list flashes like a slide show of the terrain I was trying to cover in my graduate thesis, when I wrote all things manly – war, boyhood, adventure.

The idea that “men get points for simply showing up on the page” is fatuous, especially given that many novelists, such as Henry James, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Marcel Proust, who historically trafficked in books of deep – not to say extreme – psychological depth, were possessed of a Y chromosome. I hardly think that James, Dostoevsky, or Proust are given points “for simply showing up on the page.” In a similar vein (since we’re speaking anecdotally), I’ve never heard anyone say of Kazuo Ishiguro’s extraordinary 2005 novel Never Let Me Go (a mainstay of the ubiquitous “Best of the Decade” lists that have been cropping up in the last few months), “That’s a terrific novel. I can’t believe it was written by a man.” Most people I’m aware of (both male and female) would stop after the first of those two utterances.

What’s more interesting is Baggott’s theory that women get passed over because they don’t write about masculine themes – war, boyhood, and adventure. One 2009 novel written by a woman – Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean – features all three, and was nominated for the Giller, the Governor General’s Award, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award (it won the last of these). By contrast, Bonnie Burnard’s highly anticipated second novel, Suddenly, also published in 2009, is about three women whose lifelong friendship is changed when one of them is diagnosed with terminal cancer. It wasn’t nominated for any major awards. Does this have to do with the respective themes these two authors chose?

It’s tempting to say yes, until you realize that one of the four female Giller Prize recipients is Bonnie Burnard, who took the award in 1999 for her debut novel, A Good House. Set in the aftermath of World War II, that novel is about three generations of an ordinary family. In other words, Burnard’s first novel contains none of the themes Baggott specified, yet it went on to win this country’s richest prize for English-language fiction. Is it possible, then, that her follow-up was passed over for award consideration not because of its subject matter, the gender of its author, or an institutionalized sexism, but because it simply wasn’t as good as other novels from the past year?

Perhaps. Of course, one book is too small a sample size to be statistically significant. So we can look at the five books by females out of 16 Giller Prize winners since 1994, as well as the number of women over the same period who have won the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language Fiction (five), the Man Booker Prize (six), the Pulitzer Prize (six), and the National Book Award (six). The largest of these numbers – six – accounts for 37.5% of the total winners of any given prize for the period.

If the numbers don’t lie, and if Baggott’s explanations are unsatisfactory to explain them, where do we go from here? Writing in the Norfolk Books Examiner, Lydia Netzer engages with Baggott’s analysis and comes up with three possibilities to explain the exclusion of women from the Publishers Weekly list:

1. The list is sexist, purposefully oppressing women. The solution in this case would be, I guess, to burn down the list. Make a new list. Get those bastards. This seems kind of weak and paranoid.

2. The list is false, reflecting a lame and lingering cultural bias that is on its way out. The solution is to wait. After all, we didn’t count the black writers, or the South American writers. It will all come around, given more time. I guess this is what I would like to believe.

The third possibility is more alarming than the others, because it is the simplest explanation, and therefore the most viable:

3. The list is right. The things that women write about are neither culturally nor historically significant, and the books that women write are not the best books.

It is this last hypothesis that Netzer ends up endorsing: “The lesson of the [PW] list is that nobody’s going to do us any favors. We’re not going to get prizes just for showing up and writing our little books.” If women want to get their books on the major prize lists and roundups of the year’s best, they need to “address the important stuff, the big stuff: death, war, sex, adventure, as it pertains to women and men.” Which brings us full circle to Baggott’s idea of “masculine” themes – i.e., the big stuff, the earth-shattering warp and woof of history.

Except that one of the women writers Netzer mentions as being historically relevant is Virginia Woolf, who didn’t exactly write about “adventure.” On the contrary, Mrs. Dalloway is the prototypical domestic novel, focusing on the title character’s preparations for a dinner party. (Yes, this is the crassest of oversimplifications, but I’m attempting to make a point.) The novel is resolutely interior, yet it has been heralded as a modernist classic. Another classic from the early 20th century, this one written by a man, takes up similar quotidian themes. James Joyce’s Ulysses is not about war or adventure, it’s about two gents who wander around Dublin while one of them gets cuckolded. It would appear the whole focus on “masculine” subject matter is a bit of a non-starter, then as now.

While I’d like to believe that Netzer’s second hypothesis is the correct one, my suspicion is that the truth is closer to her first suggestion. It’s probably the case that there is an unconscious sexism afoot in our literary culture, which props up the work of men at the expense of equally worthy books by their female counterparts. There are female writers working today – Mary Gaitskill, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, Alice Munro, A.L. Kennedy, Barbara Gowdy, Monica Ali, A.M. Homes, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Lynn Coady spring immediately to mind, all of them writing about different subjects and in wildly different styles – whose work is easily as good as that of their male contemporaries; they deserve greater recognition than they have historically received.

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.