Buzzed Books #63 by Aurora Huiza
Mary Gaitskill’s Somebody with a Little Hammer
Somebody with a Little Hammer is easy to read. Gaitskill’s writing is effortless, eloquent, and fairly accessible. But her content is uneasy. She tackles date rape and Linda Lovelace as well as Bjork and the Talking Heads. In much of her fiction, including Bad Behavior and her novel The Mare, her characters tend to lack meaningful connection, and search constantly for it. Gaitskill’s voice in these essays feels like an answer to our own deepest longings as readers—as searching, sometimes unhappy people. She engages the so-called “lost cat” inside each of us and admits plainly that she herself is “a person who often chooses pain.”
In “Trouble with Following the Rules,” Gaitskill shrewdly explains how factors like social codes and lack of proper education resulted in her inability to stand up for herself and her ultimately feeling raped. But beyond her impeccable analysis, there is a cohesive thread that runs through several of these essays. There is a recognition of, and sometimes fixation on, the inherent complexity of intimacy and personal relationships. There is “fluid emotional negotiation” to be had in sexual ones. According to Gaitskill, intimacy transcends any formal rules about consent and cannot be concretely taught or even succinctly explained. Things are messy, and Gaitskill loves to sort through a mess. In “Icon,” she remarks on the implications of 1970s porn star Linda Lovelace’s intense rise to fame, calling it “a fun-house version of the sometimes excruciating contradictions that many women experience in relation to sex.” The contradiction is disturbingly encapsulated by the fact that “some women orgasm when they are raped.” Gaitskill has concern for nuance first and foremost. And through extensive probing, she creates deeply empathetic, honest pictures of incredibly difficult subjects, particularly women. She draws a parallel between Linda Lovelace’s condition and the experience of Joan of Arc. The comparison is unsettlingly divine.
What is perhaps most wonderful about her work is her ability to analyze that which is unspecific by nature. “Remain in the Light” is her essay on the Talking Heads and her personal relationship with music. A subtle, but vigorous hopefulness runs through this piece like the bass pulse in the song “Crosseyed and Painless.” She hits the nail on the head with her little hammer when she delves into the mysterious fluidity of the self, which is perhaps even messier than intimacy. She explains beautifully, “I started waking up in the morning and having no idea who I was or where I was. I had to remind myself, and it took several minutes.” For Gaitskill, these startlingly intimate, barely existent notions are crucial to our understanding of human behavior, and more largely, our responses to contemporary culture and society. Illuminating the inner workings of the psyche is one of her strengths in fiction, and it is no different in her essays. This is why the movie version of her short story “Secretary” didn’t quite work out. The viscera was lost on the screen, which Gaitskill openly recognizes in “Victims and Losers: A Love Story.”
An amorphous unhappiness seems to have trailed Gaitskill through life. Possibly her most emotional piece of this collection is “Lost Cat,” a memoir in which she allows herself the most time to sit with her sadness, to consider it thoughtfully “in the light,” no matter how harshly revealing that light might be. She connects all her losses—that of her father, of the children she cared for, and of her pet cat. She handles each moment with impressive insight and sensibility. She asks big questions, like “Which deaths are tragic and which are not?” And with her ability to be both spiritual and practical, it almost seems like she might find us an answer. “Lost Cat” is one of the longer ones, but it is teeming with surprising feeling. This deeply emotional quality compliments her detailed critical analysis, and so the collection feels well-rounded and resonant. It is a must-read for every woman- young and old- especially if they seek a more nuanced understanding of themselves. Gaitskill is excellent company for all who are unsatisfied with life at face value.
Aurora Huiza is from Los Angeles, California. She is an undergraduate student at NYU studying English and Creative Writing. She writes fiction and creative nonfiction.