Somebody With a Little Hammer. Mary Gaitskill.

Gaitskill, Mary. Somebody With a Little Hammer. Pantheon, New York, 2017. F;5/17.

I was disappointed by Gaitskill’s novel Veronica which opened with dazzling verbal coloratura but then lapsed into a sick, sad dirge. But now with a bit wider sample I think I hear her singing a more consistently compelling tune.

Many of this mix of book and music reviews and reflections on a variety of subjects are referenced as having been published in periodicals before. Gaitskill’s life history, very wide stance of ambiguity about things like love and cruelty, and bravely (before she became established, maybe not so much once she started winning prizes) subjective opinions jump off the page and refuse to go away.

We have no trouble pulling together from short descriptions scattered through these pieces our author running away from home, living on the street, doing drugs, exploring sex, getting religion, getting married, having kids, and struggling as a writer. Later, clearly successfully on her feet, she blasts away with live dynamite at phony reliance on superficial appearance and a rules-based life that she feels some people use to avoid what she takes to be the fundamental human reality: emotional and sexual instinct. She hunts down other authors with deadly aim in a way I haven’t seen since Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature. But almost without exception she ends even blistering reviews with gentleness and kindness so (to the extent that any of them gives a damn) reviewed authors might feel quietly grateful that Gaitskill was after all firing blanks.

Her criticism of John Updike appeared to me dead-on from my familiarity with his later work. About Rabbit’s widow’s sentimental reflection on their dreadful marriage Gaitskill says:

It is true that time can make even crabby old women forgive that which once seemed unforgivable. But tonally, this passage reminds me of a crowd-pleasing lounge singer who ends his heartbreak ballad with cheesy, uplifting chords, his arms open wide, and a brave, desolate twinkle in his eye.

She concludes that if Updike wants to “fulfil some private need” by going through the literary motions “he has more than earned it”, but she wishes he’d “start paying attention again.”

I enjoyed her attitudes to popular political correctness:

Feminists who postulate that boys must obtain a spelled-out yes before having sex are trying to establish rules, cut in stone, that will apply to any and every encounter and that every responsible person must obey.

… to speak in exaggerated metaphors about psychic injury is … a distorted desire to make one’s experience of consequence in the eyes of others, and such desperation comes from a crushing doubt that one’s own experience counts at all, or is even real.

Marilyn Monroe and Linda Lovelace get a lot of attention in relatively long pieces, representing ambiguity based in sex and society’s attitudes. We who live our erotic lives infinitely less publicly than either of those two can still probably appreciate Gaitskill’s conclusion about Lovelace’s “(embodiment of) extreme social and sexual forces”:

Not many people could describe experiencing any of this accurately, let alone honestly, especially if it was all true.

Eventually Gaitskill wants us to know that there is no shame in sentimentality, honest sexuality however bizarre, and pursuing relationships and our real selves as far as we can. The sin against the holy ghost is hypocrisy:

News flash: Real humans… all have personal touchstones that are “off the map” because there is no map…whole cultures and subcultures, whole personalities even, have been built to hide our ridiculousness from ourselves.

Yes. It’s all good as long as it’s real. There wasn’t much at all in this collection that didn’t hold my interest and quite a few times when I wanted to jump up and cheer. Based on a sample size of two, it looks to me like Mary Gaitskill (imagine her actually reading this!) wouldn’t be very happy with my opinion: she’s way better with her little hammer as a critic of writing (and life), than she is as a novelist. 9.2/8.9.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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