Letting Mary Gaitskill Skate By

I’d like to take the time to echo Nina Maclaughlin’s astute remarks over at Bookslut and call bullshit on Mary Gaitskill.

Let the record show that I have very much enjoyed Gaitskill’s stories and novels in the past. But there comes a point, and there is most certainly a point in Don’t Cry, when the author is so full of shit that one cannot grant her a pass because of her sterling reputation. That moment, cited by Maclaughlin and Claire Dederer, is this series of sentences in the story “Mirror Ball”:

Where her soul had once held space, there was now a ragged hole, dark and deep as the put of the earth. At the bottom of it ran boiling rivers of Male and Female bearing every ingredient for every man and woman, every animal and plant. Without the membrane of her soul to buffer and interpret the raw matter of the pit, her personality was now on the receiving end of too much primary force. Music temporarily filled the empty space, soothing her and giving shape to the feelings she could not understand. (82)

To which I reply, like Maclaughlin and Dederer, “Well, come the fuck on!”

Let us examine why this is awful writing. We have already established in the story’s opening line that this musician has taken an elfin girl’s soul. Gaitskill then writes, “But he got such a significant piece that it felt as if her entire soul were gone.” Okay, a little corny, but it works. And that’s really all we need here. The next natural question that the story should answer is what precisely the musician took from the girl. Gaitskill then establishes how the musician and the girl meet.

And then we get this: “She should not have shown him her soul.” Uh, Mary, we already know that something happened concerning the soul. Can you not tantalize us further about what could have been lost here? We already have some inkling that the girl lost her soul. But, no, we get this sentence immediately afterward: “She flashed it again and again, as if it were a bauble meant to entice him, or a hand mirror flashing signals from a dark and lonely place.” Okay, the girl is determined to flash her soul, come hell or high water. But then we already know this. Because it was established in the previous sentence and it was established in the story’s opening paragraph.

Then there’s some insipid chatter about a vintage-record store, which the musician plans to show to the girl. Okay! Soul-showing time! Well, no. The musician leads the girl through the gritty streets, so that Gaitskill can, you know, demonstrate to us that she has street cred and all. But now we’re three pages into this goddam thing and Gaitskill still hasn’t given us anything. The musician feels “as if he were in a fairy tale where the hero is led into the forest by an enchanted ball of light.” But this simile simply doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t tell us anything about the musician, much less contributed to answering the central question, which involves a girl who has shown her soul and answers the presumed costs of the soul-showing. Then the girl’s soul flashes in her eyes. Uh, yeah. No shit. The girl has a soul and she’s going to show it. No need to remind us for the third fucking time, Mary.

On the next page, the forest and the ball of light seen by the musician are brought up again. Then the musician balls the girl and she “recklessly [unfurls] her soul.” Lots of bullshit about her soul darting “here and there,” but no sense about what the soul is or what it means or what this elfin girl is feeling. The girl then feels “her soul gather its vastness in one small spot.” Uh, yeah. Five pages in now and we still haven’t quite answered the central question: What precisely did the musician steal from the girl?

Her sex, as it turns out, in one of the story’s few not too shabby moments. But what of the soul? The musician drops “her soul on the floor, where it quickly became invisible to him.” Hey, Mary, this story is about the fucking girl, not the musician. Five pages. Are we going to get to the part where you are going to use your writing gifts to tell us precisely what the fuck’s going on here? Or are you just full of shit?

Turns out it’s the latter. After the girl declares, “I don’t even know him. I’ll get over it,” the story then offers this ridiculous humdinger: “Her soul was connected to her through her brain.” Yes, obviously. It has already been established that the soul is related to existence — if not through this story, then certainly from any fucking dictionary — and that, yes, the musician took it. Then we get some condescending bullshit about how “the brain is not higher in moral or celestial terms.” Look, Mary, I don’t give a fuck about the brain or your amateurish philosophy. I want to feel the loss of this girl’s soul. This is what the story should be about. And we’re a good seven (!) pages into this story and we still don’t know. Then you inform us that the girl’s “soul spoke in images of sight and sound that were quick and multiple, and which changed form by blending into each other.” Well, that’s nice and all, but, for fuck’s sake, this is a load of horseshit. We have no sense of the girl’s emotional loss. Even if we buy into the ridiculous notion that this naive philosophy is meant to reflect the naivete of the girl, this still does not tell us anything about why she lost her soul, and how this loss (at this point, now fluctuating between permanent loss and casual misplacement) completely changed her.

And then we get this: “The girl tried to feel contempt for the boy, too, but it is hard to have contempt for a person who’s made off with part of your soul.” Well, wait a sec. Does the girl now feel that part of her soul is gone or is it the whole enchilada? Does Gaitskill even know what the fuck she is writing? And why this needless longass sentence?

We then get some metaphorical sense of the girl’s predicament: “She thought of him against a vast, open sky, with a halo of piercing white. She thought of him astride a leopard, light and graceful in mid-leap.” Good Christ, this vapid nonsense rivals Ron Miller’s Silk and Steel! Talk about prose that tells us absolutely nothing about the girl’s feelings. Talk about sentences that completely betray the visceral truth of losing one’s soul. But then maybe this story’s not really about losing your soul and more about how a guy who doesn’t return your messages after two weeks has moved on. But if it were about the girl realizing this musician’s betrayal, what then is the purpose of all this soul bullshit? You’d think that Gaitskill would then take us into the elfin girl’s head and heart, right?

Wrong. Gaitskill follows the musician! And we learn that the musician has essentially snatched bits of souls from other lovers. What the hell is this? Stephenie Meyer outtakes? We learn that “the newly stolen soul was so talkative, so increasingly relentless, that it had gotten all the others going.” Here’s the question: Why the fuck should I care about any of this? The reader is being strung along here. And Gaitskill is doing an extremely insensitive thing to the reader. After tantalizing the reader for eight pages, we get this amateurish fantasy bullshit. And we still don’t know the full emotional impact of the elfin girl losing her soul! We do learn that the musician has been splitting up his own soul since he was two. (Ha ha.) But who cares really? Again, this isn’t his story. But maybe, just maybe, there will be some insinuation here about what specifically soul-stealing entails. I mean, really, we’re due.

Nope. “The chattering soul of the infernal brain girl was everywhere.” Yeah, so what? And then we get the passage quoted above:

Where her soul had once held space, there was now a ragged hole, dark and deep as the put of the earth. At the bottom of it ran boiling rivers of Male and Female bearing every ingredient for every man and woman, every animal and plant. Without the membrane of her soul to buffer and interpret the raw matter of the pit, her personality was now on the receiving end of too much primary force. Music temporarily filled the empty space, soothing her and giving shape to the feelings she could not understand. (82)

This is awful writing. This does not tell us anything that was not already telegraphed to us over ten pages. Forget the mixed metaphors and Gaitskill’s complete ineptitude with the imagery. Let’s slap her around here for not telling us ANYTHING AT ALL about this vital emotional moment in the elfin girl’s life. Even if we had some inclination of what the “primary force” entailed, we’d be okay here. But instead, we get a tired music metaphor. Because the man is a musician. And of course, it fills the empty space. But here’s the thing. If the girl’s soul was torn from her, how in the hell could she have feelings?

I think it’s safe to say that “Mirror Ball” would be rejected by just about any fiction workshop. So why was it submitted to Index Magazine? Was this a failed New Yorker story? Were the editors of Index so spellbound by the prospect of Gaitskill in their pages that they didn’t even bother to edit her? And why was this inept story included in Don’t Cry? Would it have killed Gaitskill to get the collection down to 140 great pages? Or was she contractually obligated to pad this damn thing out to over 200 pages?

I present all this because it seems to me that Mary Gaitskill, as good as she is, must be held to the same standards as any other writer. Accepting a fourth-rate Gaitskill story is accepting a fourth-rate story. Period. And if we accept anything less, then newer readers — such as Bookslut’s Nina Maclaughlin — come along and are instantly suspicious of this nation’s crown jewels. No, the time has come to get out the tar and the pitchforks and storm the gates of Index and drag out the cowardly assholes who let a talented writer skate by because the editors didn’t have the balls to place their editorial judgment above their fanboy hero worship.

I am not sure if this dreadful story happened on Index editor Molly Kincaid’s watch. But the time has come to bombard her with emails and demand accountability.


  1. Going by the quote, I don’t think Mary Gaitskill’s got any idea of what a soul, or even plain old soulfulness, is. Why she imagines she understands soul(s)–or wants to–is beyond me.
    Contemporary writers do well to avoid the subject. I wish I could steer clear of it–mention “spiritual writing” and sensible people run. No matter that I’m not at all a “spiritual writer,” but merely a sucker for holy fools, whom I do my best to make distinct. I make sure their thoughts and feelings are specific and accessible. Yet my results remain “unmarketable.” Certainly it’s not the only reason I’m scarcely published, but it doesn’t help.

  2. Good lord, just how many times does she use the word “soul” in this story? By my count, there are 12 instances just from the quoted passages, so I assume the grand total is in the dozens. Overkill, wouldn’t you say?

  3. I’m glad you made a point about the bad writing that gets printed because of the author’s name. Mainstream reviewing has become very gentle with terrible books. I think it’s because in reviews like the NYT, so many of the reviewers are writers themselves and aren’t professional critics who are willing to put hurt feelings on the line to give an honest criticism.

    Yet, I think you were too heavy on Mary Gaitskill’s editor. She’s not an elected official; she’s not accountable to anyone but her company. She is in business to make money. Publishing houses put out crap books all the time because the author’s name will sell. In the end, Mary Gaitskill wrote the words and decided to keep them rather than hit the delete button.

    Also, new readers should try to introduce themselves to recommended writers by reading the works that have been recommended to them like “Bad Behavior”, an excellent story collection.

  4. Do any of you like Haruki Murakami? Mirror Ball reminds me a lot of surreal passages in The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. Why should we be scared to talk of souls or muddled flashes of light? I thought Mary Gaitskill’s story was gutsy. She’s venturing into tenuous territory. I respect her ability to depart with the type of writing that gave her a reputation to begin with. She’s exploring and working hard and it shows. I commend her work.

  5. Mirror Ball is a masterpiece. When I read stuff like this, I can only think that people are jealous of her extraordinary writing. I’m with you bighouseplant.

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