Sunday, May 06, 2012

Because They Wanted To (1997)

Mary Gaitskill's second collection of stories is the first thing I read by her. Now, after circling back to it after getting to the rest of her stuff, I'm pretty sure it's the best thing she's done, with the possible exception of her novel Veronica. From the trajectory of her career I get the sense somehow that she's happiest working in the short-story form. She applies herself to it particularly well here. At least three stories—"Tiny, Smiling Daddy," "Because They Wanted To," and "The Girl on the Plane"—are just great, remarkable, searing portraits of disaffected lives in extremity, utterly without pretensions, and they leave marks. The first is largely the interior dialogue of a middle-aged man who doesn't know his daughter any better than he knows himself, stubbornly clinging to seeing her primarily only as an extension of his own identity and nothing else. It's comical but mostly painful to see him thrashing around the ruins of his life, angry and embittered and alone, with no understanding of how he has come to such a pass. The latter two are more simple—externalized scenarios that unfold with implacable inevitability, yet also in directions that are hard to guess. "The Girl on the Plane" is told first-person by a cocky and frivolous man who attempts to make a pass at a woman he meets on an airline flight. He goes about it in ways that are almost shockingly inappropriate, snarling and sneering and insulting her. And it even seems to be working at some points—it's hard to tell—but then he goes and spoils it all by saying something stupid—stupefyingly stupid, so much so that it entirely calls into question his veracity as a narrator in the first place. The response is swift and real. The title story is even more externalized, recounting the tale of a 16-year-old runaway from California trying to eke out a living in Vancouver, knowing virtually no one there and evidently understanding so little about making one's way in the world that one shudders for her. Even so, what happens when she takes a day job watching kids for a woman in the woman's apartment while the woman goes out job hunting is completely unexpected, unsettling, and more haunting than I can say. The depths and power of it surprise me every time, even as every time I return to it I hope for something better. It never comes and I am always surprised again.

In case it's not at the library.

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