An Overview by Rima Walker
If you are interested in reading about young women who can’t seem to find themselves and who go to strange lengths to find their way through the morass of achieving adulthood, then Mary Gaitskill is for you. But her young women go to extreme lengths to learn who they really are. Some turn to other women or try relationships with men who always disappoint them, and some physically hurt themselves as some kind of relief from their misery and loneliness, fighting emotional pain by inflicting physical pain upon themselves or by having someone do it for them.
Enter the world of Mary Gaitskill and you meet her dysfunctional cast of characters: abusive fathers, helpless or indifferent mothers, children who grow up with skewed personalities. They are low in self-esteem and seek out humiliation; they often have severe addiction or sexual problems, and they struggle to find their places in a society that rejects them for the bad behaviors they hide behind in order to cope. Mary Gaitskill’s writings are not for the squeamish, but the critics applaud her.
I can read anything well written, and Gaitskill writes very well indeed, with great clarity, unique metaphors, and a true understanding of her characters. But once in a while, I had to put her books down for a bit because her message was so relentless, her characters so entrapped in their self-destructiveness and struggles to find a better life, a better world. I first found Mary Gaitskill through an Indie film called Secretary based on one of her short stories in a book called Bad Behavior. I couldn’t find the book right away, but our library has Two Girls Fat and Thin, so I started with that.
The fat girl, Dorothy, and thin girl, Justine, through alternate chapters, reveal their pitiful lives in adulthood after childhoods of abuse in various forms. Both are isolated and lonely, Dorothy coping by food binges and a night job that successfully keeps her away from other people. Her story is told in the first person, making her the main character in a way. Justine’s is told in the third person. Justine (think the Marquis de Sade’s famous masochistic character) seeks out self-destructive sexual behavior. As a would-be journalist, she hooks up with Dorothy in order to write an article about Anna Granite, through whom Dorothy had become dependent in terms of her philosophy of Definitism. Granite, of course, is Ayn Rand in disguise, her philosophy a thinly veiled version of Rand’s Objectivism, a philosophy of rational thinking based on individuality to the point of total self-interest in order to achieve strength. Dorothy, who worked for Granite, believes in her views wholeheartedly and embraces her own isolation as a means of survival, trying to overcome the incest imposed upon her girlhood by her father.
Justine differs from Dorothy—she struggles to adulthood through rebellion, extreme sexual encounters, and repeated failures in her work life and her relationships. Her father had taken an interest in her, but remained oblivious to her active teenage perverse behavior and to the fact that one of his friends had sexually abused her.. In adulthood she graduates to sado-masochistic relationships. Though her self-loathing is strong, her prime worry is that her sadistic lovers do not leave permanent marks on her body. After one of the betrayals inflicted on her by a lover, she “now felt herself in her aloneness, and she savored herself bitterly”. Though she is no stranger to betrayal, she goes on to betray Dorothy late in the book, but that very betrayal leads both of them to a new understanding of themselves.
The last few chapters are the strongest and most compelling in a book that is relentlessly strong and compelling as they reveal the dark side of personal relationships, showing human nature at its most hopeless and depraved. Yet, as it barrels toward its inevitable end, we can sense a glimmer of hope and feel even more compassion as these two women grope towards a human connection.
For more about Ayn Rand, read The Fountainhead made into a terrific film—and Atlas Shrugged. For more of Mary Gaitskill, read her short story collections and her novel Veronica. ~