Mary Gaitskill, or Writing from the Howling Wound

In graduate school I had a dear friend who loved Mary Gaitskill. Tragically, this friend died in 1999, and since then, I have mostly read Gaitskill in her memory, as a tribute.

It’s not that I dislike Gaitskill’s work. It’s that reading her stories and novels takes fortitude. She is expert at reaching into the howling core of her personal pain and bringing it to the page. And she does so without sentiment, warning, or apology.

What’s great about Gaitskill is that her point of view is utterly singular. There is nobody who writes—who thinks—the way she does. In a story in her most recent collection, Don’t Cry, a woman and a man sleep together, and the man takes a piece of the woman’s soul. Neither of them knows it. The story traces, incrementally, what happens to this piece of the woman’s soul—what it’s like for the woman to live without it and the man to live with it. At the end of the story, when the woman has been reunited with the missing piece, you realize that Gaitskill has just narrated a pretty typical transaction (i.e., a one-night stand in which a woman becomes emotionally attached despite herself) in a totally new way. From a different plane, actually.

Because Gaitskill’s point of view is so unique, she can get away with things that bother me in other writers’ work. For example, nearly all of her characters are writers or professors, and most of her women fit Gaitskill’s own physical description—wiry, feral, weasely. (No joke.) They attend MFA programs and writers’ conferences. They even write stories within the stories, which in other writers’ hands can be annoyingly self-referential. Not with Gaitskill. There’s always something new and unexpected.

The wound, though. The wound is howling. I often have to wait a few months after buying a Gaitskill book, girding my loins, until I feel ready to meet it.

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