Tuesday, November 29, 2016
This story comes from Mary Gaitskill's first collection, Bad Behavior, and it's more overt about the sexual kink she often writes about, BDSM, a complicated acronym you should look up for further tediously detailed discussion. Told third-person omniscient, "A Romantic Weekend" goes inside the heads of both its characters, an unnamed man who calls himself a sadist, and Beth, his mistress for the time being (he is married), who calls herself a masochist. Among other things, the story has a firm grip on the terrible foibles of these relationships, which come of projection, incoherence, and other poor interpersonal skills. "What do you want to do?" Beth asks the man during their all-night flight on the weekend trip in question. "I can't just come out and tell you," he says. "It would ruin it." And therein lies a primary rub of sexual relationships, not just BDSM. We want our partners to just know. Explaining things spoils it all. At the same time, the reports Gaitskill makes from inside the man's head point to what Beth finally realizes. He is a dangerous moron. He wants to beat her, torture her—he feels like an overprivileged 14-year-old. He doesn't appear to derive any pleasure, for the most part, and what he consciously seeks is closer to a porny fantasy of snuff: "With other women whom he had been with in similar situations, he had experienced a relaxing sense of emptiness within them that had made it easy for him to get inside them and, once there, smear himself all over their innermost territory until it was no longer theirs but his." This is a remarkable formulation of at least one projected mindset of the sadist, or top, or dom, but it's off. (All definitions are off a little in this realm.) The story seems to be straining after something much more dangerous as well, the mindset of a serial killer say, or at least sociopath. But this character's translation of it, perhaps exactly because of the malevolence, is also infantile and silly, closer to the kind of dominating that literally an infant would exert (see also: Donald Trump), which in turn is based on the humoring goodwill of its caretaker. You see how quickly it becomes so complicated. The man in this story is mostly unpleasant, particularly in his actions, and it's not long before he has completely alienated Beth. In fairness, Beth has some strange ideas herself about masochism (as do we all, ultimately, and the other way too). Neither one of these characters is very good at this. The story is not so much about BDSM but more about the treacheries of forging sexual relationships, the many places where compromise fatally undermines them. The problem of stating needs becomes an endless tiresome matter of negotiation, which ruins it. All the ways that sex comes up short, and love with it. It's not bad, but I think Gaitskill has done better elsewhere.
The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff