Back on February 13, I introduced Mary Gaitskill when she came to read for the Writers at Rutgers series on the campus at New Brunswick. Here's a section from that intro.
We will start where it always starts, with the writing itself. Here, a paragraph from the novel VERONICA.
The new songs had no humility. They pushed past the veil and opened a window into the darkness and climbed through it with a knife in their teeth. The songs could be about rape and murder, killing your dad and fucking your mom, and then sailing off on a crystal ship to a thousand girls and thrills, or going for a moonlight drive. They were beautiful songs, full of places and textures--flesh, velvet, concrete, city towers, desert sand, snakes, violence, wet glands, childhood, the pure wings of insects. Anything you could think of was there, and you could move through it as if it were an endless series of rooms and passages full of visions and adventures. And even if it was about killing and dying--that was just another place to go.
Instantly we get the sense of multiple registers. Although VERONICA is a work of fiction, it's not so pure as that. This isn't simple realism, where characters predominate and characters rarely have ideas of their own, but another thing: it's up to something dirtier and more beautiful. It's worldly. It steals from the here and there. We hear the voice of the essayist. If it's the duty of the essayist to test and try, it's all here: "The songs had no humility." We're swept by the dark allure of that and we want to know more. And we're not surprised that that more isn't just sociology, but something more disconcerting: minds changing down to their cells. It makes sense that this shift doesn't happen through direct statement, but through metaphor, the tool of the poet. The songs are vandals. The songs have mouths with knives in their teeth. The songs stun the houses that we thought were safe, and while there's something awful about the figment of those songs in our shoes and in our beds, it's also a relief to say that the world isn't simply light and white and golden. To be given permission--at least when it comes to our dreaming. And how is that relief conveyed on the page? Through music. Or rather, language becomes music, through the device of a list, which escapes syntax, cause and effect, linear thinking. Abstract word against sensory impression, the general against the particular, the cooked against the raw, the monumental against the miniscule--"the pure wings of insects"--all of it animated by slyness, wit, and the beauty of our precariousness.
To put it simply, we're participating in simultaneity when we read a paragraph like this. We're entering a fugue, though it sounds more casual than a fugue at first. It is idea and feeling fused, and if the work makes us feel more alive, it's because it's hammering multiple notes in us at once. My guess is that we could take any Mary Gaitskill passage and spend an hour talking about its contradictions and interrogations. I suspect it would keep yielding. I believe it would resist any plan to demystify it. Why? Because it isn't afraid to say that the world is inscrutable, and it is our task to bear into that predicament with the keenest perception--which might be the only way out: the one way to grace. As BOMB says of her most recent book: "With...uncanny...bluntness and high lyricism, DON'T CRY takes its place among artworks of great moral seriousness."