“Erudite and sophisticated and disobedient” – Oppositions: Selected Essays by Mary Gaitskill

IMG_26Oct2021at112443Mary Gaitskill is perhaps most well-known, if in a rather oblique fashion, as the author of the short story that inspired the film Secretary. I say oblique, because in many cases the film fans are unaware of the existence of the story itself – not to mention its author – and in particular of the ways in which the fil.m simplifies and distorts the psychological complexity and audacity of the original work of fiction (‘Secretary’, from Gaitskill’s 1998 collection, Bad Behaviour). This is, in fact, the topic of one of the essays in Oppositions: in this piece, as Gaitskill analyses the airbrushing of her central character in her filmic incarnation, we’re reminded that while Gaitskill herself is not a household name, her work looms nonetheless pretty large in our collective cultural consciousness. And it’s a crying shame that she’s not better known, because, unlike the writers of the Secretary screenplay, Gaitskill steers sharply away from the convenient and the saccharine. Like A.M. Homes, she jumps straight into the shadier, messier ends of human psychology – the realistic ends, you might think – and isn’t that the sort of thinker we all need to know about?

So. Oppositions is a collection of non-fiction – personal essays, political commentary, and book, film and music reviews – selected from a period spanning the mid-nineties through to today (2021, for future readers). Gaitskill published another collection of essays – Somebody With a Little Hammer – in 2017; I haven’t read it, but from what I can glean, this is an edited and updated version of the same, with some pieces (‘The Trouble with Following the Rules’) reprinted and some others (‘I Cannot Get Out’) newly anthologised. Either way, the earlier book doesn’t seem to be widely available anymore, and for true fans, it would be worth getting hold of this new one anyway. It’s a compelling and oddly cohesive selection: oddly, because the pieces here are extremely diverse in topic (from travel-writing in St Petersburg to a study of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl) and cohesive, because whether Gaitskill is critiquing Joyce Carol Oates’ portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in Blonde or looking at popular reactions to high profile political celebrities’ infidelities, she’s consistent in her acute complications of the various issues. There are no hot takes here: it’s all about, as the Marxists have it, the dialectical method. Gaitskill interrogates everything: other writers, other readers, herself, and we end up a nuanced and insightful presentation of ideas that defies one-liner summaries.

High points? The first section is entirely absorbing, from her analysis of her own readings of the Bible, to her account of learning to horse-ride (badly) in her fifties. The St. Petersburg piece, ‘The Bridge’, which looks at tourism, racism, and acceptance, has a stunningly visionary tone that brought me back to Annie Dillard’s ‘Total Eclipse’:

‘Clouds rolled in, white and profoundly blue, massed like great intense thoughts in a clear and joyfully humming mental field. A little blimp toiled distantly, finite, curved and occluded in the great mind of the sky. The Kenyon guy stood up to take a picture.’

The second and third sections, like all written reviews of visual and auditory media, suffer a little of you’re unaware of the works discussed, but Gaitskill sidesteps that effect, not only thanks to judicious quotation and evocative description, but in the way she weaves her own stories and experiences around her assessment of the material, and in how she engages with other critics. In ‘The Easiest Thing To Forget’, she looks at Carl Wilson’s critique of Celine Dion, as well as directly at Dion herself, and then at her own reactions to and dismissals of other writers, in order to query the status of the ‘uncool’ and to celebrate Wilson’s careful analysis – an analysis that, in the first instance, it seems as though she would dismiss outright. (Dialectical, right?) In ‘Icon: On Linda Lovelace’, she gives us a careful and sensitive examination of how Lovelace’s life has been filtered through the lens of her various lovers, and of the shifting position of pornographic content in (western) society. Lovelace’s experience, as contradictorily reported by herself and others, is, Gaitskill says, ‘a fun-house version of the sometimes excruciating contradictions that many women experience in relation to sex.’ She was ‘fated to embody extreme and opposing social and sexual forces much too big for the limits of her self, of any self.’ This could describe Gaitskill’s own writing: its oppositions, the forces with which it grapples are too big for the limits of any essay, and the result is a collection that’s absolutely fecund with ideas.

Any Cop?: It’s erudite and sophisticated and disobedient. Gaitskill doesn’t treat the line, but she’s not a provocateur: she’s a generous and insightful critic, no matter the subject matter.

Valerie O’Riordan

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