Unflinching, provocative, bleak and brave are just some of the words that have been used to describe American novelist and essayist Mary Gaitskill who burst on the literary scene in the 1980s with a short story collection called Bad Behaviour, which inspired the 2002 film Secretary, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. Sex workers, S&M merchants and abusive parents have peopled her stories and novels and earned her a reputation for facing up to unsavoury aspects of American life other writers might tiptoe around. Her work includes four novels, notably The Mare, Two Girls, Fat and Thin and her 2019 book This Is Pleasure, which centres on a #MeToo scandal in the New York books industry. Her latest work, Oppositions: Selected Essays, is published by Serpent’s Tail. She describes her neighbourhood.
Mary Gaitskill photographed by Derek Shapton.
ON HOME “Home” is a perplexing subject for me. I used to refer to a visit with my parents as “going home” when in fact I didn’t feel that way about it. My parents moved almost every year when I was growing up and on top of that I left the familial home at 15. I did go back off and on but the rift was enough of a shock that my parent’s various houses (and later, apartments) did not quite feel like home after that. As they grew older and rancorously separated, that sense of “home” was diluted too. Diluted but not gone; I still carry some awareness of that in my body, where I feel both are biologically present. In some basic sense I consider “home” to be my body. There is strength to this but also vulnerability. Because of the curious nature of “home” as a subject for me, I am going to consider every topic here through that lens.
ON MY NEIGHBOURHOOD As an adult I have lived very few places long enough to really think of them as home. The closest I came was the small town in Rhinebeck, NY where I lived with my husband for nine years starting in 1998. The style of the neighbourhood was similar to that of at least one neighbourhood I had lived in as a child; blocks of Arts and Crafts homes, Cape Cods, Dutch colonials, some quite grand Victorians, grand but lightly maintained, with the emphasis on comfort and family life rather than display. I loved this place partly because it felt familiar but also in some hard-to-describe-way mysterious; perhaps I was feeling the depth of generational life there, history that I could sense but not fully see or be a part of.
We now live in a different county in the village of Catskill which is more diverse socially and topographically: The village slopes down to the Hudson River on one side and up to the mountains on the other, giving some streets stark angles complicated by trees and roof tops that are flat, peaked, corniced and sometimes domed. You can stand on a certain corner and see the road rising and falling as it travels into the greater world – then turn down a side street and enter into a lush fold of smalltown life (planned greenery, flowers, decorations, toys). There are gorgeous houses, blocks of them, even on streets where the sidewalks are wildly uneven; rigorously kept homes are sometimes close by those that are almost calamitously broken down, and the two elements, rigour and calamity, each accent the other’s beauty. There is a sense of smalltown hierarchy, of house-pride and house-humility, of the effort made to create beauty and also just to survive. A very grand house might sit across the street from a once-grand house now weather-beaten and sagging on its foundation and thus one is subliminally reminded that some boats rise while some sink and you never know for sure what will happen. There is that same sense of mystery grounded in the past, but somehow more varied, more complex. The place touches my curiosity, makes me wonder.
ON MY DESK To some extent me and my husband have carried “home” with us, in the form of personal artifacts and furniture acquired over time, with a few pieces around for decades. One such piece is my desk. I bought it in 1989. It is a simply built, graceful mission-style object made of oak, with open shelving on each side of the single middle drawer and nice detailing in the form of a shapely drawer knob and finials. It has a nice personality that doesn’t call attention to itself, delicate but sturdy. I feel at home when I sit down to work on it, grounded in my past while looking out the window at the sky and trees and expansive lawn of my most recent home.
ON WHAT’S NEXT That may depend to an alarming extent on what happens in the next election. I would hate to have to leave the country. But increasingly I do not feel at home in my country or culture. I am politically most aligned with progressive policies but the left increasingly strikes me as culturally crazy. The right, however, strikes me as so much more crazy that I have to side with the left. Because, however annoying they can be, at least progressives aren’t likely to kill anyone. At least not yet. My neighbourhood is sharply divided between Trump supporters and Democrats (with a few moderate reluctantly Biden-voting Republicans hanging in limbo). I have nightmares about an election outcome that has convoys bristling with military-grade weapons parading down the street to celebrate their victory. I very much hope that’s not what’s next. I do not want to write about it.
Oppositions: Selected Essays, published by Serpent’s Tail, is out now.
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