By Tausif Noor
Here is an anecdote that sounds like a disclaimer: a year ago, I went out with a writer, who asked on our first date who I’d been reading. I mentioned Ottessa Moshfegh and Mary Gaitskill. His eyes widened. “Veronica is my favorite novel. I once met Mary at a writing retreat. She is unflinching.” I liken the experience to a reverse Bechdel Test of sorts: is it possible for two men discussing Gaitskill to refer to her in terms that don’t indicate their speakers’ own trepidation?
Here is a disclaimer that functions as a disclaimer: in 2013, Suzanne Rivecca published an essay for the Rumpus titled “What Men Talk About When They Talk About Mary Gaitskill,” in which she called, hyperbolically as she would later emphasize, for a “permanent moratorium on men gassily discoursing on Mary Gaitskill,” citing reviews by James Wolcott, Pico Iyer, and William Deresiewicz that were emblematic of how male critics fixate on the sex and violence that are rife in Gaitskill’s works. Gaitskill responded with an open letter in which she notes that the aforementioned critics’s “bitched up” reviews had nothing to do with their being men. Rivecca was prompted to a response in Salon, and many others chimed in with comments, often titled with variations on “What We Talk About When We’re Talking About Suzanne Rivecca Talking About Mary Gaitskill.” Other than a recognition that we’ve all read the same Carver collection, these responses reveal the contentious nature of attempting to universalize criticism on the basis of gender.
In her New York Times review of The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendships by Marilyn Yalom and Theresa Donovan Brown, Anne Friedman recaps the history of homosocial bonds between women, whose “disconnectedness from public life was used as a justification for the superiority of their friendships.” Women’s historical exclusion from rights afforded by governments, churches, and their husbands induced them to form close-knit ties with other women, ties so close that in the 16th century “it was understood that a woman could share the same soul with her best friend, but rarely, if ever, with her husband.” The phenomenon of female friendship was necessarily a turn toward private, interior life. Virginia Woolf, observing the shifts in women’s writing in the 20th century, wrote that women’s lives were “far less tested and examined by the ordinary processes of life,” but looked ahead to “that golden, that perhaps fabulous age when women will have what has so long been denied them — leisure, money, and a room to themselves.”
Woolf would go on to pen the novel that expounded on this right to privacy, but it stands to question what sort of age, golden or not, our current climate affords women. Paradoxically, as women gain equal footing with their male counterparts, the obsession with their fictional platonic bonds has only increased, evidenced by television shows such as Girls and Broad City to novels by Emily Gould and Zadie Smith and a plethora of films that highlight, in one way or another, an essentialist and universalizing notion that female friendships — whether edifying, competitive, devastating, fickle — possess a quality that sets them apart from other relationships. Even as complexity is introduced by means of class, race, and sexual identity, contemporary fiction suggests that the battle between private inner life, and the shadow it casts on public presentation, remains at the core of female bonds. Negotiating the gap between interiority and public performance often compromises the ways in which relationships between women have been depicted, namely as mere reflections of societal inequalities. But thinking of these relationships as instances in which characters instrumentalize and treat each other as means toward their own development reveals that the difficulty of maintaining clear boundaries between public and private life destabilizes universalist claims toward “female friendships” as a trope.
“There is great ferocity latent in women — latent because culturally we still don’t fully support or acknowledge it,” writes Mary Gaitskill, in an essay about Guns n’ Roses frontman Axl Rose. Specifically, Gaitskill wonders whether the feminist critique of the guitarist’s misogynistic lyrics and lewd behavior with female fans warrants a disavowal of his music. His public image, and indeed his music, argues Gaitskill, offers viewers to take what they will from it, and in this case, it’s the raucous ferocity and expression of unmitigated anger that sets Rose apart and offers the most marginal utility to his audience. The idea that expressions of cruelty can sometimes — but not always — offer a redemptive function runs through the core of Gaitskill’s work.
In Gaitskill’s fiction, female characters contend with the complexity of their latent ferocity amidst alienation from the larger world. Reflecting on her childhood, a character relates: “The boundaries of my inner world did not extend out, but in, so that there was a large area of blank whiteness starting at my most external self and expanding inward until it reached the tiny inner province of dazzling.” Describing a man with whom she has an affair, another character says that, “When he held her against his chest, she felt secure and protected in a way that had nothing to do with his muscular body. She felt that they were nourishing each other in some important, invisible way. But they could barely hold a conversation.” In her short stories, men and women alike enter into relationships defined by awkward contingencies: strangers attempt sadomasochistic sex that only highlights their incompatibility, writers moonlighting as prostitutes grow weary of kind but distracted johns, old friends halfheartedly attempt to rekindle friendships only to realize that their sympathy emerges only as a matter of convenience. Relationships, whether between members of the same or opposite sex, illustrate the hapless way in which people seek out solace from a less-than forgiving world.
In her novels, Gaitskill’s female protagonists enter into the orbits of each other’s lives not out of a mutual desire for friendship, or even respect for one another, but in spite of it. Two Girls, Fat and Thin introduces us to Justine Shade, a journalist in New York who “swam through the day just below the surface of mental alertness, bumping her head on the floating detritus of impressions and thoughts.” Antisocial in demeanor, Justine is writing an article about Anna Granite, the Ayn Rand-like founder of a philosophy called Definitism, and her research brings her to the company of Dorothy Footie, one of Granite’s earliest devotees. The novel skips between scenes of their respective childhoods, revealing stories of being sexually abused by fathers and family friends, resulting in a distinct alienation from their respective peers. For Dorothy, this constitutes a basis for friendship:
I remembered that Justine was a molested child, and her methodical reserve became all the more poignant. I reclined and allowed a sensation of personal contact and intimacy to assail me. We could be friends. We could be more than friends; she could be the one to at least tell the truth about Anna Granite to an ignorant world. When she looked up at me, I was convinced of it; her demeanor was that of one who has just come to an understanding.
Yet Justine balks at Dorothy’s repeated attempts toward intimacy, and ultimately betrays her in her final article, describing her as “a huge woman, who floats with the slow grace of the always fat in airy, gaudy, single-cloth garments of indeterminate nature. Her face is intelligent, and her emotional intensity rises from her like a force field.”
True to the Sadean origins of her name, Justine is a glutton for punishment. Her interaction with a man who “opened her up in a way that nobody had before” is only an extreme approximation of how cruel the world is, but its extremity is only a cheap substitute for real penitence. He humiliates her sexually, and when she asks him to tell her he loves her after having whipped and urinated on her vagina, he complies, only to urinate on her face afterward. It’s a blunt and too obvious scene, pregnant with too much meaning. He tells her: “You are so hard and closed […] Don’t you know anything about tenderness and caring? Between men and women?” Later, when this same man pushes the limits of sadomasochism to the point where Justine is in danger, Dorothy is the one to rescue her, and the novel ends with the two women consoling each other in Justine’s bed.
Reenacting the cruelty of the outside world within the confines of her bedroom doesn’t mitigate, as Justine finds, the feelings of alienation that so defined her childhood. Dorothy, while an improbable friend, shares an understanding of the conditions that led to Justine’s pursuit of such a lifestyle. It would be facile to attribute Justine’s childhood abuse to her penchant for sadistic sex. What’s more interesting is her relationship with Dorothy as less a simple bond between women in the face of the patriarchy — though this isn’t entirely false — and more of a catalytic relationship between creatures who desire comfort. Dorothy describes their initial meeting as “the longest talk I’d had with anyone for years,” and Justine concedes that she too is friendless. Moments of what characters take as true intimacy occur in these highly concentrated private scenes, as if their exposure to the world robs them of their value.
Yet, their final embrace in the last pages of the novel seems to indicate that their fledgling relationship is circumstantial rather than grounded in their shared experience as women who have suffered cruelty at the hands of men. You can imagine Justine shaking off this moment and moving back into her veneer of privacy, while for Dorothy, such relationships are meaningful steps toward self-actualization. In a passage that preempts their final encounter, Justine sums up Dorothy’s relationship with Anna Granite:
So when you read Granite’s work not only did she awaken your sense of beauty and pleasure in life, not only did she illustrate for you a positive use of strength and power, but she provided a springboard for you to create an internal world richer and stronger than the external world which wasn’t giving you any support at all. But she was the only departure point.
In spite of their naively virtuous intentions, Dorothy’s excessive displays of love toward women she respects and admires are just a way to rid herself of her past, to inch closer to becoming someone she might respect. Depending on who you ask, this sort of action could be conceived as selfish or practical; in either case, trying to love yourself before attempting to love others is as misguided as pursuing any other relationship, which effectively makes this task neutral.
“I looked so boring, lifeless, immune and unaffected, but in truth I was always furious, seething, my thoughts racing, my mind like a killer’s. It was easy to hide behind the dull face I wore, moping around.” So narrates Eileen Dunlop, the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Man Booker Prize-nominee Eileen. Like Gaitskill, Moshfegh has cut her teeth writing short stories of abject and dejected characters, whose insularity from the outside world gives Moshfegh’s fiction the sense of being almost undeniably real by virtue of their relentless misfortune and haphazard cruelty. “You’re lucky I’m not a creep,” says a misogynistic neighbor in “An Honest Woman,” from Moshfegh’s newest collection, Homesick for Another World. “I could do anything I wanted to you, you know. A young girl, drunk on my couch. You should be more careful.” She laughs in his face and later taunts him with loud sex noises with another lover. The neighbor dismisses her as a “plain Jane” and awaits himself for a future populated by “all the stupid people who would gasp and fall to their knees in ecstasy every time he shuffled past.” Private epiphanies, Moshfegh suggests, don’t require a fundamental understanding of other people’s lives.
Stranded in her small New England town where she is the ward of her alcoholic father and a secretary in a boys’ prison, Eileen brims with feelings she can’t quite get out. Like Gaitskill, Moshfegh’s abusive fathers regard the world with confusion, and their daughters are more clear-headed. “You have nothing to worry about, Eileen. Nobody’s going to bother you with a face like that one.” She ponders killing him with an icicle, but reconsiders after estimating the added burden it would impose on her life. “Although I wished him dead, I did not want him to die. I wanted him to change, be good to me, apologize for the half decade of grief he’d given me. And also, it pained me to imagine the inevitable pomp and sentimentality of his funeral. The trembling chins and folded flag, all that nonsense.”
When a mysterious new woman named Rebecca arrives to work at the prison, Eileen sees the opportunity for her life to begin anew. “I wanted to be close to her,” Eileen says, “to get an intimate view of her features, how she breathed, what her face did when her mind was busy thinking. I hoped to be able to spot her superficial imperfections, or at least find flaws in her character which could cancel out the good marks she got in the looks category.” Desire — for love or for friendship — is always registered as a recourse to self-improvement, particularly when life operates in the absence of desire. Eileen recalls:
It’s important to keep in mind, given what I’m about to relay, which is everything I remember from that evening, that I had truly never had a real friend before[…]Believing that a friend is someone who loves you, and that love is the willingness to do anything, sacrifice anything for the other’s happiness, left me with an impossible ideal, until Rebecca.
The events that unfold between Eileen and Rebecca on this fateful evening – the climax of the novel – are only fateful in their capacity to catapult Eileen out of the life she desperately wants to leave. For all her admiration of Rebecca’s glamorous presence in public, Eileen recognizes by that Rebecca is a foil for Eileen to realize her own private desires. Later, after having lived in New York and subjected herself to hapless relationships with hapless men, Eileen reflects:
A grown woman is like a coyote — she can get by on very little. Men are more like house cats. Leave them alone for too long and they’ll die of sadness. Over the years I’ve grown to love men for this weakness. I’ve tried to respect them as people, full of feelings, fluctuating and beautiful from day to day […] I had no idea that other people — men or women — felt things as deeply as I did. I had no compassion for anyone unless his suffering allowed me to indulge in my own.
Gaitskill and Moshfegh’s characters aren’t friends in the traditional sense, but that’s because they aren’t characters that invite the typical one dimensional feelings of empathy or pity. In this way, they illustrate perfectly a feature of the human condition that is often overlooked: that of self-interest, and the way self-interest manifests between and among people. The characters deftly sidestep the conundrum of “likeability” that women (and women authors) the world over have been subjected to care about. Rather, they occupy a world from which they feel uniquely disjunctured, but by which they are continually buffeted. In an effort to exert some sense of control over their lives, the women in Gaitskill and Moshfegh’s world enter relationships that are catalytic and consumptive, treating each other as blunt instruments with which to carve out their own subjectivities.
In The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson comments on Gaitskill’s short story “The Agonized Face,” in which a divorced journalist privately negotiates her feelings toward a “feminist author,” whose loud punditry induces irritation, sympathy, and contempt. In particular, the journalist is vexed by the author’s stolid discussion of “the agonized face” of “disgrace and violence, dark orgasm, rape” that symbolizes women’s position in a patriarchal world. In her description of the journalist’s private, internal thoughts, Nelson evokes the sense that such feelings are to be expected given the state of the world. “Who would want, the story suggests, a world in which everything nice were partitioned off from everything horrible, thereby draining the world of its wild, nearly unnavigable paradoxes. And who would want a feminism — or any form of social justice — that lessened our apprehension of such difficult coexistences, or diminished our access to this electrical current?” For Nelson, coming to grips with a feminism that accounts for less than rosy realities means contending with this agonized face as the product of the disjuncture between public and private lives, a face that is produced when a desire for a fully realized self exceeds the obligation to nurture arbitrary relationships. Who would want a feminism that avoided these truths? Who would want a feminism that is any less?