Bookplanet: Mary Gaitskill doesn't do chick lit
Can a Writer of Malaise Find Happiness in Acclaim? -- by Ginia Bellafante
AMONG the celebrated novelists of her generation, Mary Gaitskill, 52, is easily the writer least interested in the vague malaise of the affluent. Well-pedigreed couples trying to save ailing marriages in Rome or Capri have held no appeal. Since she made her literary debut with a critically acclaimed collection of short stories, "Bad Behavior," in 1988, she has built her career writing about sexual abjection in squalid worlds from which there are few exits.
Ms. Gaitskill's work, as well as her public persona, stand at some remove from the quiet world of domestic fiction so often admired by award committees. But two weeks ago, much to her surprise, she learned that she was a finalist for the National Book Award.
The committee has honored her fourth book and second novel, "Veronica," a structurally complex story about a former model reflecting on her youth through conversations with an older friend who ultimately died of AIDS. In many ways the nomination signals the sort of mainstream sanctioning that has eluded her.
"Her life is not easy," said Knight Landesman, Ms. Gaitskill's friend and the publisher of the magazine Artforum. "There have been good reviews, but that does not translate into dough. She has not been offered the cushy faculty job at Princeton. The work has been too raw, and that's why this has been, really, such wonderful news."
Ms. Gaitskill has a soft, affectless voice that suggests she'd greet news - wonderful or cataclysmic - with the same sort of internalized apprehension. "I couldn't eat, my stomach was so upset," she said of hearing about the reward , while seated in the dining room of her weekend home in Rhinebeck, N.Y. "Some people react to good stress bodily the way they react to bad. I went to bed that evening and had nightmares."
Ms. Gaitskill's home is a small two-story house she rents in Rhinebeck with her husband of four years, Peter Trachtenberg, also a writer.
During the week she lives in a student dormitory at Syracuse University, where she teaches creative writing, an arrangement that is both cost-effective and loud. "But what can you really do?" Ms. Gaitskill said. "You can't tell an 18-year-old to keep it down and turn off Britney Spears or whatever it is that they listen to."
At 18, Ms. Gaitskill, who had grown up outside of Detroit with her parents and two sisters, was not herself immersed in the antics of dorm life. Two years earlier she had run away from home, first to Canada, then California, then back to Canada again, to escape a home life in which she felt stifled. "I had a strong conviction that there was something out there in the world that was wonderful," she said.
She moved about, at one point dating a draft dodger, and keeping journals. She found work selling flowers on the street, performing as a stripper in bars and making crafts. "I had really wanted adventure," Ms. Gaitskill explained. "At the time that I ran away, lots of kids ran away from home. It was something of a social phenomenon."
During the period of estrangement, though, she still came home every Christmas, and when she was 20 she moved back home to enroll first in the community college where her father taught political science, and then at the University of Michigan where she won the prestigious Hopwood award for writing in 1981, the year she graduated.
She subsequently moved to New York to pursue a writer's life, supporting herself as a legal proofreader.
Ms. Gaitskill is a shy woman, with smooth skin and a restless spirit she believes is a legacy from her father, who died in the spring of 2001, four years after the publication of her second collection of short stories, "Because They Wanted To." She describes her mother, who now lives in Chicago, as a woman with a keenly nuanced mind, but it was with her father, Lawrence, that she experienced the deepest familial connection.
Lawrence Russell Gaitskill did not live an easy life. His parents, who were poor, died when he was a child; he grew up an orphan in Lexington, Ky., fought in World War II and went on to become a Fulbright scholar. But his profound intellectual curiosity was coupled with limited ambition. He read a great deal about current affairs and sociology, Ms. Gaitskill said, though she was not sure if he had ever read her. "When he was dying," she remarked, "I said to him, 'You made me everything I am.' "
Alison Owen, the heroine in "Veronica," is the middle-aged woman Ms. Gaitskill might have become had she only her delicate looks to carry her. As Ms. Gaitskill did, Alison runs away as a teenager. She falls into modeling, and into the bed of a corrupt agent in Paris before returning home to New Jersey and then New York, where her dreams require a recalibration.
By her late 40's, she is living outside of Silicon Valley cleaning offices and struggling with Hepatitis C. But she has come to inhabit a deeper level of herself through her acquaintance with Veronica, an ungainly, abrasive, unlikable woman whose failings do not consume her.
Part of Ms. Gaitskill's gift as a writer is that she can evoke the entire essence and image of a character in a single physical description. Of Veronica she writes, "From a distance her whole face looked askew, puckered like flesh around a badly healed wound."
In her work Ms. Gaitskill has often found horror in ordinary imperfection. "There have been times in my life when I would walk around on the street and think, 'My god, people are so ugly,' " she said.
Like Patricia Highsmith, Ms. Gaitskill has been intensely interested in the darker truths of physical appearance throughout her career, and in broad terms "Veronica" is a meditation on beauty as a limited form of social capital.
"Spectacular beauty can estrange you in a deep way," she said. "For me it would have been awful. I would not have been able to use it."
Ms. Gaitskill had begun a first draft of "Veronica" in the early 90's, after the release of "Bad Behavior," when she decided to move to Northern California to escape New York and the quiet life that had been interrupted. She felt that the detached tone of her first book, combined with its subject of sex and cruelty, had fueled various and misguided assumptions about her.
"People expected me to be this embodiment of all knowing hipness and I just wasn't," she said. During a radio interview early on she was at such a loss for what to say that she remained virtually silent throughout it.
Finding herself unproductive in Marin County, Ms. Gaitskill next moved to Texas and took a job in the creative writing department at the University of Houston. (The university assigned her a driver because she didn't have a car.)
It was during that time that she was invited to join a group of writers participating in a Buddhist retreat for Vietnam veterans, held at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, and met Mr. Trachtenberg, who had also been invited. Neither really surrendered to the experience, but after Ms. Gaitskill went back to Texas, the two kept in contact through e-mail. "I liked her against my will because she was initially quite cold to me," Mr. Trachtenberg said.
Their relationship continued when Ms. Gaitskill decided to return to the East Coast in 1997. (Not being able to afford Manhattan, she chose Rhinebeck.) The two were married a few days after 9/11.
The couple began to consider whether they might adopt a child. But they were $50,000 in debt and Ms. Gaitskill was working on two books. "It was really a quandary," she said. "I didn't feel as though I had the freedom to do everything I wanted to do."
Three years ago, she contacted the Fresh Air Fund to see about becoming a mentor. "One boy awoke the most passionate maternal feelings in me that I had ever had," she said. The boy, now 9 and his sister, 13 regularly visit Ms. Gaitskill and her husband, and the couple pays the children's tuition at a Catholic school in Brooklyn.
Ms. Gaitskill had never intended to marry though she had imagined herself spending her life with someone. "I often thought of marriage as rather dull," she said. When Mr. Trachtenberg proposed, she laughed. But she is not cavalier about her choice. "There's a deep level of support that I never knew I was missing," she said, "because I'd never really had it."
And she has enjoyed the kind of social assimilation that marriage affords. "You know, if you're an older woman and you're not married, I think it makes people uneasy," Ms. Gaitskill said. "It was a comfortable feeling to become a recognizable member of the herd."