Powerful Essays, Brilliant Criticism From Mary Gaitskill

Book review: Somebody With a Little Hammer, by Mary Gaitskill

Novelist Mary Gaitskill, in her nonfiction essays, makes you think, and not just as you read. The content of these essays – in all their depth, humor, pain, wit, and wisdom – stays with you long after finishing. As does the feeling that you’d like to be friends with her, or at least pick her brain.

Gaitskill has a brilliant mind, truly. The more I read of her writing in this form – clear, direct, opinionated, educated – the more I’m just completely in awe of her brain.

When I read fiction, I loved short stories. Gaitskill wrote a scandalous at the time, now considered a modern classic collection, Bad Behaviorwhich I was very into in college. I haven’t read it in a long time, but it deals with many issues faced by young women, especially ones living in New York City, plus psychosexual issues, experimenting with BDSM, etc. That genre isn’t at all my forte, even when I was into fiction, but Gaitskill is such a phenomenal writer and she handles these topics so deftly you can’t help but be impressed, even if you’re the type who would normally never pick up a collection of stories of troubled young city dwelling women working through emotional problems sexually.

Somehow, despite falling away from fiction, I’d never noticed that she was also a prolific essayist until I saw Somebody With a Little Hammer was being released. I’m so glad I know now.

The book is a collection of previously published essays dating from the late 1990s to the present. They include memoir pieces tied into current events, political observations, trying to understand a powerful dislike of Celine Dion, an emotionally gut-wrenching long form piece, a personal tale from Saint Petersburg, and an incredibly thoughtful meditation on the controversial, confusing life of Linda Lovelace. Many pieces included here are book reviews, and trust me, you don’t know how much you need her reviews in your life.

On Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Bitch: “If this kooky, foot-stamping, self-loathing screed is meant to be, as it claims, a defense of ‘difficult women’ – that is, women who ‘write their own operating manuals,’ in the hope that ‘the world may someday be a safer place for them’ – then all I can say is, bitches best duck and run for cover. With friends like this, you don’t need enemies.”

She does a takedown of blockbuster thriller Gone Girl that summarized everything I thought when it was recommended to me (I merely paged through and watched the movie when it was on TV one night.) I hated it despite the interesting plot twists; the characters seemed so pretentious and arrogant, and I was especially annoyed at the unrealistic, show-offy excerpted dialogue I read.

I couldn’t understand its popularity, despite friends’ insistence this book would blow my mind. It was refreshing to see Gaitskill felt the same.

She only finished reading it because she was stuck on a train with nothing else. And thankfully for everyone she was, because no one writes a scathing takedown like her. “By the time the train ride was over, I felt I was reading something truly sick and dark – and in case you don’t know, I’m supposedly sick and dark.”

And yet she has the elusive qualities I think every reviewer hopes for – the ability to offer constructive criticism and intelligent feedback, sifting through the good and the bad fairly, able to pinpoint and explain what went wrong and how.

She reviewed other titles I’d read – a fascinating look at Joyce Carol Oates’ novelization of Marilyn Monroe’s life, Blondeanother college favorite I was glad to read her perspective on. Plus fascinating coverage of Nabokov, a writer who inspires intense feelings in those who love him, and who Gaitskill understands and interprets on an unusually deep level.

And several I’m not familiar with. Her writing is amusing enough that interest in the review subject isn’t always required to appreciate her take on it, but if there’s a drawback to this, it’s that occasionally I didn’t get as much from an essay because I didn’t know or wasn’t interested in the book reviewed.

Lest she seem sour or belittling, she’s equally critical on herself. She shows a sensitive, wounded side of herself that’s empathetic and moving. The book’s standout is unarguably the longer memoir piece “Lost Cat”, in which she achieves a Didion-esque feat by seamlessly tying together the threads of many unrelated stories, creating a powerful work of memoir and a gorgeous testament to loss, grief, pain, understanding, and forgiveness.

The threads include the titular cat – a sickly stray brought home from Italy; Gaitskill’s father and his fractured relationship to his family; and her and her husband’s connection with kids from New York’s Fresh Air Fund, an organization that places city kids with upstate families during the summer. There’s so much going on and it’s all so good. It’s a powerfully heartbreaking and healing piece. It both hurts to read and yet feels important and relatable on many levels.

Here, Gaitskill advises Natalia, a struggling but strong, intelligent Brooklyn girl:

If you walk around acting like you don’t care for long enough, people will start to believe you. If you really don’t care, then people who do care will leave your life and people who don’t care will come into it. And if that happens, you will find yourself in a very terrible place.

Issues of feminism and sexuality play key roles in her essays as they do in her fiction. In “The Trouble with Following the Rules: On ‘Date Rape,’ ‘Victim Culture,’ and Personal Responsibility,” she writes about the lifelong confusion she felt after what she terms a rape, but which was a much more complicated experience than what the word implies.

At times I even elaborately lied about what had happened, grossly exaggerating the threatening words, adding violence – not out of shame or guilt, but because the pumped-up version was more congruent with my feelings of violation than the confusing facts.

Gaitskill’s handling of effect and emotion on the topic of date rape is fresh, honest and relevant, especially for an essay published in 1994. Elsewhere, she’s witty and acerbic but with a carefully-honed, rich literary style. I’m left in awe of her analysis and observations and her ability to make experiences resonate.

In “Victims and Losers: A Love Story”, she gives her thoughts on the movie adaption of her short story “Secretary”, which turns into a much deeper thought piece on identity and why the changes between story and film were made:

Americans can’t tolerate feeling like victims, even briefly. I think it is the reason every boob with a hangnail has been clogging the courts and haunting talk shows across the land for the last twenty years, telling his/her ‘story’ and trying to get redress. Whatever the suffering is, it’s not to be endured, for God’s sake, not felt and never, ever accepted. It’s not to be triumphed over. And because some things cannot be triumphed over unless they are first accepted and endured, because, indeed, some things cannot be triumphed over at all, the “story” must be told again and again in endless pursuit of a happy ending.

Her essay on the 2008 election cycle, “Worshipping the Overcoat: An Election Diary,” is something wonderful. “John McCain, having unleashed insane Pandora, is now trying to stuff her back in the box, probably because human beings are horrified at seeing people at his rallies turn into prelynch mobs.” HA! How naive and innocent everything then seems now. If only she’d take on current political rallies.

Incomparably written, timeless pieces on literary criticism, culture, sexuality, identity, memory, feminism, family, privilege, and so much more.

Somebody With a Little Hammer: Essays
by Mary Gaitskill

published April 4, 2017 by Pantheon Books

I’ve included affiliate links from Book Depository.
It means I get a small commission if you buy via these links. I’m never paid to promote or review any title.

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