Two weekends ago, the Los Angeles Review of Books hosted Mary Gaitskill at Editor-in-Chief Tom Lutz’s home for an evening of samosas, reading, and conversation. I first fell in love with Gaitskill in college when I read her debut collection of short stories, Bad Behavior. Reading Gaitskill for the first time was like the first puff of a cigarette. It felt illicit, invigorating.
An ex-boyfriend of mine had years earlier recommended I read Two Girls, Fat and Thin but when the relationship ended I tossed away the suggestion as male condescension along with the remaining memorabilia of our time together and subsequently forgot about Gaitskill. It was only after overhearing a very stylish older woman at a cocktail party bring up Gaitskill that I finally decided to try reading her. The woman was wearing pink leather mules, dangerously pointed cat-eye glasses, and described Gaitskill’s prose as “deviant and delicious.” I was in. By the end of the summer I had read Gaitskill’s entire body of work and had officially become what I can only describe as an epic admirer.
I’m not the only one. There is a certain mythos that seems to follow Gaitskill like a cloud of sexy black smoke. She has been referred to as the “downtown princess of darkness” perhaps because some of her stories contain traces of the underworld: prostitutes, kink, perversity. But to fixate on this too much is to miss what makes Gaitskill a truly remarkable writer. That is to say, her style, her preciseness, and an uncanny ability to translate the shades and symptoms of shame in a way that is simultaneously forceful, erotic, and tender.
I would like to think that the people humming about with their sangria last week had all gathered to get a whiff of this power. That they too had been pulled to this evening of talk and chatter by the sheer magnetic force of Gaitskill’s writing. I have learned from previously disastrous experiences that getting too close to your heroes is not always a very good idea, and I kept my distance throughout the night as much as one can when milling about with 75 or so other people in a small Silverlake bungalow. I made small talk with a woman who was a remarkable doppelgänger, albeit a younger incarnation, of the mystery woman who had turned me on to Gaitskill. We discussed which Gaitskill book had been the one to draw us in (for her, Veronica). I sipped my wine, I found a seat, and settled in for a night of Gaitskill.
Advancing towards the microphone, Gaitskill prefaced by announcing to the crowd that she had an ingested a certain kind of very legal, mind-altering substance at the offering of a friend to help soothe a sore throat. “She said it was just a tiny sliver,” Gaitskill said. “It looked kind of big to me.” The crowd softened, Gaitskill laughed, and then proceeded to read an excerpt from her essay on watching Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat for the first time with her boyfriend. If there were ever a breaking of the ice moment, this was it.
Later that night, I approached Gaitskill to have her sign my books. They were dog-eared, wine-stained; they had traveled with me from New York to California, and now they were sitting in the lap of the creator herself. She was seated in a chair and I know it sounds ridiculous but I found myself collapsing to my knees to sit by her feet as she inscribed. When you have harbored the words of another writer like a second consciousness, when someone’s prose has accompanied you through your teens and early 20s like the literary equivalent of a soundtrack, it’s hard to find words that seem adequate, or at least not totally corny. She too was self-admittedly having trouble finding words that night, although for different reasons. And so with Mary on the chair and me at her feet, we both relished those few glorious moments of muteness. She handed me back my books and smiled.