Sunday, August 14, 2011

Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991)

Objectively speaking, Mary Gaitskill's first novel is probably the least skillful of all her books, including her first collection of stories, Bad Behavior, published three years earlier. One gets the unmistakable sense that she was a story writer by inclination who had been encouraged—even harried—by various factotums of the publishing industry to produce a novel, which conventional wisdom (and, indeed, experience) argues is more likely to bring the commercial potential. (In many ways Veronica, her other novel, operates like an extended story, eschewing the structures and developments of a novel.) But for all that, Two Girls, Fat and Thin remains a favorite of mine. I like its depictions of a life in Manhattan that revolves around eking by on temp work while working on the kind of writing style that gets you published in the "Village Voice." In carefully modulated bursts, Gaitskill works up her own version of such a style, which is a pleasure to read both as parody and, to be honest about it, probably because I tend to be notably susceptible to "Village Voice" tricks of the trade, e.g., the cunning knowingness evinced by constant cultural one-upmanship reference, the shallow embrace of outrageous gestures of fashion, and/or the contempt for sentimentality even as one celebrates art rooted in sentimentality, so on and so forth. At the same time, Gaitskill takes one of her deepest plunges here into the interiority of sadomasochistic sexuality, which becomes an entire universe in her hands, a dark, scary, alluring, sexy place where people go, consciously and otherwise, to damage themselves. Awkward and obvious elements—such as naming one of the protagonists vying for supremacy here Justine Shade, or more generally the transparent mockery of Ayn Rand and Objectivism—live side by side with scenes that are frank, brutal, and absolutely convincing. It can also be very funny, a tale of children away from home trying to act the way they imagine grown-ups do, making their mistakes and hurrying away from them, the psychological equivalent of a cat who believes it has hidden itself by tucking only its head under the couch. The flaws of everyone here are plainly obvious to anyone but those who possess them, and it operates on that level as a comedy of manners. It's altogether a rich stew of late-20th-century urban experience, a charming, black, and vastly entertaining one, and one that I still enjoy returning to frequently.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. "the psychological equivalent of a cat who believes it has hidden itself by tucking only its head under the couch" Perfectly apt image here.