Monday, March 07, 2011

Short-a-Day: Mary Gaitskill's "The Other Place"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Feb. 14 & 21, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 11.

I never thought of killing Jenna. I didn't think about killing anyone I actually knew--not the girls I didn't like at school or the few I had sex with. The first time I had sex, I was so caught up in the feeling of it that I didn't even think about killing--I didn't think about anything at all. But I didn't have sex much. I was small, awkward, too quiet; I had that tremor. My expression must've been strange as I sat in class, feeling hidden in my other place, but outwardly visible to whoever looked--not that many did.

I suppose, if you wanted to, you could read Gaitskill's short as being about the suppression of the violent urges we know most people to have (at some point in their life), or as an attempt to describe a certain type of character, the unrealized psychopath. But given leading paragraphs like the one above, Gaitskill seems to be using the hints of violence not to warn of the next Columbine, but to explore the isolation that some people feel, the cold disconnect from this reality that threatens to leave them stranded in the "other" place, a place that they can only exit through acts of measured violence. (After all, neither the narrator nor his son Doug, actually break in the story, and he even points out that "You have to go pretty far afield to find something people would call abnormal these days.")

Personally, I think Gaitskill handles the subject matter rather clumsily -- first, in attempting the male point of view, and second in her descriptions of this "other" place: "I would go invisibly into an invisible world that I called 'the other place.' Where I sometimes passively watched a killer and other times became one." Why the repetition of "invisible"? It's already stressed by the rest of the story and blatant descriptions. Additionally, our narrator needs someone to be speaking to -- or a reason to be speaking, like a Raskolnikovic confession, a Humbertian remembrance. Here, our narrator vaguely uses his own thirteen-year-old son's obsession with toy guns to passively consider the "other place": "How did this happen? The way everything does, of course. One thing follows another, naturally."

There's a little reverse psychoanalysis, in which our protagonist rules out his mother's deathbed confession of being a prostitute as the source of his urges, but that only serves to make his feelings all the more alien. The isolation is re-enforced by a pivotal moment in which our "hero" remembers watching a neighbor, Jenna, sleep: "I realized that although her eyes had been open that night, she had still been asleep. She had looked right at me, but she had not seen me at all." Plenty of unrequited romances have used that exact description before: Gaitskill's still not getting at anything new, understandable, real, etc. She's just hoping that the vaguest mention of violence will perhaps titillate and excite the readers, and that's more than a little deplorable.

The story's climax is when our the protagonist remembers his one attempt to actually victimize a woman -- hitchhiking, he pulls a gun on a forty-year-old woman, only for her to stare him down, asking him to pull the trigger. She, too, is in the other place -- so he surmises -- for she, who probably wears a wig because of the chemotherapy she's undergoing, is a dead woman walking, and has nothing to live for but death. That's not the other place that Gaitskill's been suggesting the narrator and his son Doug are trapped in, however, so this once again seems like a stretch for meaning, one that further enforces that nobody in this story, especially the narrator, has any idea what they're talking about. So why, exactly, are we reading it?

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