Monday, September 1, 1997

Q&A Mary Gaitskill: Violations

The photograph loomed over the toiling shoppers like a totem of sexualized pathology, a vision of feeling and unfeeling chaffing together. It was a picture made for people who can't bear to feel and yet still need to feel. It was a picture by people sophisticated enough to fetishize their disability publicly. It was a very good advertisement for a product called Obsession. 
     "The Dentist"

HB: I was a little anxious about meeting you. I imagined myself dissolved into the kind of perceptions your characters have of each other; as when one character says, "she didn't think his languor was drug induced. It seemed more the product of an unusual distribution of self, as if, by some crafty manipulation of internal circuitry, he'd concentrated himself in certain key psychic posts and abandoned the vast regions he didn't want to be in."

It seems risky to be perceived by you.

MG: Let me tell you most of the time it's not like that. Every now and then something jumps out at me but usually I have to sit there for hours, literally hours, and think: what was that like, metaphorically or literally?

HB: You could be storing me up for later disassembly.

MG: I don't disassemble. I just render.

HB: You pay enormous attention to people's faces, aspects, demeanors. I wrote a note to myself saying, "as if on acid."

MG: We all do that. When you're on acid it just becomes more unnoticeable.

HB: Unnoticeable?

MG: Yeah. I had dinner last night with some people. There was a young woman sitting across from me with a friend of mine. Her face was very beautiful but that's not what was striking about it. Her eyes and her ears were just like weeeeppp [extending her hands out of her head]. It wasn't that they were abnormally wide but just that they were um um um um um and at first I thought she had really big ears. She didn't. They were just emp emp emp emp. She was very interesting to look at for that reason.

HB: Sadomasochism plays a large role in your work. And you describe a lot of trauma, so I thought, well, maybe this is the trauma theory of S & M, very popular these days. But you also describe a lot of childhood, and childhood cruelty. S & M in your work seems most of all to be an extension of the way children often treat each other.

MG: What is the trauma theory?

HB: The trauma theory put forward by psychologists like Judith Herman in her book "Trauma and Recovery," holds that if people have the kind of sexuality in which they are turned on by power, they must have suffered abuse as children.

MG: I have noticed that every person I know who is interested in S & M has experienced some abuse, sexual or not. Obviously I have not gone out and done surveys. But the people I've met who are very excited by physical pain have either been beaten as children or have suffered a very serious ailment like cystic fibrosis, which implied being restrained and in pain. Almost everybody interested in physical pain has experienced it as a kid. To survive, to triumph over it, they have to figure out some way to configure it as pleasure.

Cruelty is a very intense energy, a quality everyone has. Children often go through every stage of experimenting with it. If you can really hurt somebody, you're punching a hole through their being. And kids like to play with boundaries. Children can get fixated on it if it's the most intense thing in their environment. Children really love an intense experience of life. They're always into really high degrees of awareness and intensity. And if that's not answered by their environment, if their parents are tuned out, as most adults are, and not able to feed back to the kid at that level, the kid will find other answers. If cruelty is the most intense thing in your environment, that's what you grab onto. It could be you can't let go. It gives you the greatest sense of being alive.

HB: That's what your imagination comes back to again and again.

MG: If that was the most powerful thing that you had in your spectrum when you were growing up.

HB: The open wound.

MG: Or just the excitement of the tear.

HB: In your books, there's a great distance between the intense, cruel world of children and what parents know. The child can't tell about those gradations of shame and competition,.

MG: Doesn't want to tell; you don't want your parents to know those things about you.

HB: You make the interesting statement that "people who are into S/M tend to be bisexual because their sexuality is not oriented around the genitals. It's more oriented around fantasy than people not into S/M. So there's more inclination to go either way."

MG: I don't like being cast as an expert. It's just an observation.

HB: You've said that you don't like de Sade much as a writer but that as a child you used to beat off to him. I can't imagine it.

MG: Why?

HB: De Sade seems so cold, so mathematical.

MG: I wasn't aesthetically very demanding as a kid. And with de Sade you didn't have to read through pages and pages of boring stuff; there was always something happening. Like the cartoons I watched. Horrible stuff happened there all the time, too, horrible stuff.

Surely you remember that many cartoons are very cruel. Because children live with this every day, it naturally shows up in cartoons. Bob Flanagan [the S & M performance artist who died of cystic fibrosis in 1996] told me he got one of his fixations from a cartoon, something about a pig being strapped into a chair because he was greedy and then force-fed until he exploded.

Cartoons show violence and violation. Kids need that because kids are acutely aware of how much danger there is in the world. Bodies in explosion -- it can be funny, humorous or horrible. It's the mischievous thing that makes cartoons powerful.

HB: In "The Dentist," from the new collection, "Because They Wanted To," the main character is attracted to her dentist. Given her lifestyle, this seemed to be a kind of nostalgia for repression. She's part of a San Francisco scene where if someone's girlfriend is coming to town, he goes out to buy some sex toys; it's like buying flowers. It's all so casual. In that context, someone like the dentist might seem romantic.

MG: Mysterious. You don't know what it is about him. Whereas the other people don't shut up about it.

HB: The reality you often describe is a fractured thing, barely glued together. There's an image you often evoke of someone feeling "pulled in two directions and unable to go in either."

MG: It's true about people I see.

HB: In "The Blanket," you have a dialogue between a woman and her younger lover:

"I tell you about being raped, and you set up a rape fantasy? What's wrong with you!"

"I was just doing what we do all the time."

"It's not the same!" But his quiet, injured voice had interrupted her anger, and besides, what he said was true.

That's an interesting passage. When is it playacting and when is it reality, and how do you draw the line?

MG: It's funny about those things. It volleys back and forth. You can hit the wrong button and it can suddenly turn into a very bad thing. I read that story in Seattle and someone said she thought it was terribly sad. My first reaction was, why? They're having a pretty good time, actually. Things work out. There's a lot of communication because they like each other a lot.

Maybe it would be sad if this was the only way Valerie, the main character, could be intimate with somebody. It's very constructed; she can't just be with him.

HB: She needs theater.

MG: And scenarios. It's very controlling. And in that way, she hides herself. So you could say that's sad. And it is, kind of, if that's all she can do.

HB: You frequently describe the need for facade.

MG: It's very hard for people to relate to each other just straight out. Not just sexually but generally. A very smart person once said to me, and she wasn't cynical about this at all, that she found love was not something most human beings would gravitate toward; they run away from it. It requires that they be fully present, fully open and willing to meet another person at the most intense level of openness and presence, and it requires that they allow themselves to be fully seen. Most people don't even want to look at themselves, let alone have somebody else look.

HB: It's a state in which you're not using fantasy as fuel.

MG: Although it wouldn't prohibit doing that if you wanted to sometimes. But no, fantasy wouldn't be necessary. You know how when you're a little kid you play with other little kids and have tickle fights? That's probably the closest thing to what it would be like, a very pure exchange. Most people, not only do they not remember how to do that, but the opportunity would actually frighten them.

Maybe you can get there step by step. Maybe that's what people do when they spend all that time getting to know each other. But I thought what she said was true: love is not something most people will automatically gravitate towards.

HB: It seems that what goes on among women in the stories is just a little more humane than what goes on between men and women.

MG: There's only one story, "Processing," in "Because They Wanted To," where I really develop a relationship between women.

HB: That's the story with the passage: "We all went to dance, our movements sloppily describing friendship, sex, display, and animal warmth, all in a loop of drunkenness that equalized every sensation. The bar was saturated with dumb, lurid kinesis. Mischievous entities with blearily smiling faces peeped from behind corners."

MG: Yeah. There's a lot more willingness to communicate among the women, a lot more forthright expression. The older guy the narrator is involved with is not avoiding tenderness but is not spontaneous or compassionate, and the younger guy is hoarding. With the women there's a greater fluidity.

HB: The stories near the end of "Because They Wanted To " seem to have a novelistic continuity; they link up to each other. At other times you get a short story to do a novel's work. For example, "Heaven," the last story in "Bad Behavior," is a kind of time-lapse novel, you get the sweep of a novel though things unfold quickly. And it's so unexpected, so quirky with regard to how people grow, age, change, reach out, don't reach out.

MG: Thanks. I wasn't sure it was a good idea to put those "Because They Wanted To" stories together like that. I agonized over it a bit. I intended the first story, "Turgor" to be its own story, I didn't have any intention . . .

HB: Nice word.

MG: "Turgor"?

HB: Yeah.

MG: I like it a lot. Kind of has a beautiful meaning. It means the state of inner tension, the inner tension of a plant that gives it its shape. Other than Susan, the characters' behavior comes out of inner tension, which has given them their shape, their cellular shape, that makes them who they are. It gives them a nice vitality yet somehow is not very helpful. Turgor is about being very defined, but in a way that kind of makes the characters trapped. Susan is doing something with this guy, and she doesn't understand what she's doing, really; she's trying to hurt herself without really knowing why.

People have so many problems and they're so fucked up. You could just look at it and go, oh god, or you could admire how they're dealing with the structure that they have, the turgor that they've been given, the shape they have, and what they do with it. When it goes past turgor it's like a slow opening up. It starts from a very tight place and then opens opens opens.

HB: You're very good at describing people being mean to each other, people who even seem to cultivate a certain pride in their meanness, especially in "Bad Behavior." For example, in "A Romantic Weekend," one character thinks: "he had missed hurting her for years, and had been half-consciously looking for another woman with a similar fatal combination of pride, weakness and a foolish lust for something resembling passion."

MG: In the new book is it's not as self-conscious. People don't even know they're being mean. They think they're perfectly normal. And I think that's mostly true of people. Most think they're not doing anything mean, just defending themselves or putting down some awful person. The biggest assholes I've ever known in my life are convinced they are innocents surrounded by vicious people.

HB: Are you in danger of becoming some sort of cult figure?

MG: I don't think so. But there are some people who feel that way about "Bad Behavior. "

HB: Because?

MG: I'm not sure. They don't like either of the other books and have no problem telling me that. They're just so irritated with me because I haven't written another "Bad Behavior." I have a sneaking paranoid suspicion they think it has a lot of cruelty that makes it cute or funny, and that's why they like it. They think I'm justifying it, making it OK, and that, since then, I've betrayed them.

HB: The short stories describe the difficulty people have connecting, as if they were slightly different kind of organisms trying to find some purchase on each other. Is it a problem extending that kind of writing over the course of a novel?

MG: It wasn't for me. In fact, it gave me more opportunity. My inclination -- as a writer, talker and thinker -- is to go all over the place. I'm not very focused. If I decide to focus I can, but it requires a lot of effort. In a short story there's a limit to how much you can wander.

HB: But in a novel you want some sort of greater structure, don't you, whereas a short story can end in an indefinite though interesting gesture.

MG: But it still has to have a form, a very distinct form because it's short. In a novel you can wander and wander. You might have to have a dramatic conclusion at the end but that's not a problem, I can do that. But I like to wander wander wander wander. You can't do that in a short story. Whereas a novel is like stepping into a big kaleidoscope.

HB: "Two Girls" has an overriding structure, two women progressing over the course of their lives toward their meeting.

MG: I wasn't sure about that; I realized, to my horror while writing it, that I didn't know the structure. I look at other books and notice when the structure is clear. It wasn't in "Two Girls."

HB: There is a sense in which you know these two women are going to meet. Everything aims them at each other. You know they are going to have a fate together.

MG: I would think not.

HB: Really?

MG: I would guess not. I would guess they are not the kind of people who hit it off long term at all. It would be one of those things that sometimes just happens; you have a really intense experience with someone and you honor it for that reason but you don't necessarily want to hang out with them.

Let me ask you a question. When you read my stories, particularly the ones in my last book, would you characterize them as kind?

HB: I would say they are tempted by kindness. I don't think they arrive there in a predictable or steady way. Kindness is represented.

MG: A friend told me she thought they were heartbreakingly kind. And it struck me as true, though it's not something most people would say, and I don't know about the "heartbreakingly." But I don't know why people don't see it, and refer to them as cold. Whether kind or not, cold is about the last word I'd use to describe them.

People say they are detached, lacking in emotional engagement. I find that peculiar.

HB: In the essay you wrote for "Communion" about your experience with Christianity, you said: "My conversion lasted only about six months . . . but I gradually let it go. I began to write seriously for the first time in my life and I used my passion in telling stories instead of saying prayers."

MG: That sounds somewhat rhetorical to me now. It wasn't in the form of a choice. But it is true that I was putting creative energy into prayers and used the same caliber of energy in writing stories.

That essay was mainly on how the Book of Revelation affected me. It's so brutal: there's a very brutal aspect to religion, probably all religions. As a teenager I felt, this is wrong, no God would do this. If God is this horrible I don't want anything to do with religion. As I got older it was more like, this is real, a part of life and not just human life but the universe, period. It's not about the terrible God punishing you; it's just there. You need to acknowledge it and be able to have compassion even though the way it's presented biblically may not be very compassionate.

It's like a dream I wrote about. You're trapped in this house. You don't have any choice and it can be terrible, the most terrible place in the world. There is something about a divine set-up in the dream; it could be like hell. But I don't think that's all there is. That dream is about hell but the other part is there's such a thing as grace or opening or, again, compassion, and that changes everything.

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