“This nuanced novella” – This is Pleasure by Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill’s novella, This is Pleasure, dramatises the plights of Quinlan Maximillian Saunders, better known as Quin, who has been ensnared in a #MeToo movement net, and his protégé, Margot, both a Quin survivor and his defender who got her start in publishing with his assistance. Quin is a charming, middle-aged editor at a leading literary house in NYC with a stellar public reputation (although rumours fester behind some doors) as an advocate for writers, especially unestablished female voices. Yet over 100 women have signed an online petition that accuses him of improper touching, suggestive comments, or inappropriate questions. Quin basically admits that the charges are true: “But I don’t believe [my accusers] were hurt. They were maybe offended, but that’s different.”

This nuanced novella is narrated by Quin and Margot in alternating chapters. Relatively early in their relationship at dinner after a book event, Quin praises the acuity of her recent work: “Your voice is so much stronger now! . . . You speak straight from the clit.” As if to punctuate that thought, he “reached between her legs,” but she yelled “NO!” and stopped him with a firm hand gesture.

Margot often finds herself struggling to explain her friend/mentor and to justify how she sees him: “his silliness, his humor, his dirtiness . . . rekindled my spirit.” She learns to deflect or ignore his “habitual flattery” that was always mixed in with “little jabs and jokes.” She generally frames her story about his hand between her legs for laughs, and it is generally accepted as such. But once a listener is horrified and questions why she remained friends with him. Why indeed?

Margot is a difficult character to completely sympathise with. Her loyalty to her friend is commendable but her affection is odd and off-putting. Her emotions toward Quin vacillate between anger and joy. In the following passage, Margot explains the reactions of his accusers and highlights the unreliable and contradictory nature of her own feelings:

“Women are like horses. . . . They want to be led, but they also want to be respected. You have to earn it, every time. And they are as strong as fuck. If you don’t respect them, they will throw you off and prance around the paddock while you lie there bleeding.”

Although the bestial imagery emphasises the strength and danger of women, a horse-faced woman is far from a compliment. Nor is Margot unaware of the power dynamics of Quin’s actions, admitting that Quin is being punished because he gave instructions to these women that they perceived as orders. This is of course the entire point of the debate. Quin himself recognises that society’s new context has changed the stakes for the men of his generation and status. He throws himself on the mercy of the court, moaning that the laws have been changed without his consent or input:

“That this is the end of men like me. That [these women] are angry at what’s happening in the country and in the government. They can’t strike at the king, so they go for the jester. They may not win now, but eventually they will. And who am I to stand in the way? I don’t want to stand in the way.”

I placed myself in the context faced by the women who were outraged at Quin’s antics and damaged by his abuses of power. If a woman asked me whether I thought that sex is the core of my personality, how would I react? With discomfort? With intellectual engagement? If my older, female boss asked for my opinion about who should orgasm first during sex, would I feel threatened? Excited? These are examples of Quin’s perceptive questions that he has conned himself into believing that young women want.

Any Cop?: Gaitskill’s novella never devolves into a “he said, she said” narrative because she denies us access to any direct feelings or reactions from the survivors of Quin’s manipulative games and flirtations. This strategy is brilliant. These women aren’t on trial. Quin’s actions are not in question. His guilt has already been stipulated and entered into the court record. Even though Quin isn’t a predatory monster cut from the cloth of Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, etc., he still represents a breed of privileged, generally white male which is dying out. An entire novel could be written (and I’m sure many exist in various stages) about a man and the group of women he intimidated, molested, and raped. I’m willing to open the door and kick Quin into traffic. Nobody will miss him and his ilk.

 

 

Chris Oleson

 

 

 

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