I first fell in love with Gaitskill's writing in the early '90s after coming across her first novel "Two Girls, Fat and Thin" by accident in the campus library where I worked. Her first collection of short stories had come out in the late '80s and I remembered reading about it, but I was afraid to pick it up: She was being lumped in literarily with people like Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz, and Jay McInerney... and I was in the throes of a devastating breakup, not able to emotionally bear what I assumed was yet another shallow, nihilistic book about Hipsters in the Big City. I could not stand any more hopelessness in my life.
"Two Girls," though, helped to save me mentally. Life for me then was so utterly barren and painfully raw; the nothingness of everything hurt me. In "Two Girls," emotionally painful things happened to the characters, and their lives were also often barren...but along with all of the pain was such an incredibly deep awareness of the underlying connections between people and things in the universe, a connection that Gaitskill was able to write about with such beauty and soulfulness. Reading her made me understand that beauty and connection did exist, even though I was at the time incapable of feeling or recognizing any such thing.
I immediately wrote her a heartfelt letter, spilling my guts about my state of mind and how her work had helped, just a little, to lift me out of the extremely dark place I was in. I thanked her for making me not feel so crazy.
To my utter surprise, she sent me a little package--a paperback of "Two Girls" with the inscription "To my fellow non-crazy person"! And so from around '92 or so until '96, we had a sporadic correspondence, including exchanging a couple of home-made cassette-mix tapes of favorite music between us. She even autographed, via mail, my hard copy of "Two Girls" ("Thanks so much for the super-cool tape!"). When I went to grad school at San Fran State in '94, she had actually just finished teaching at the very same school the year before and was still living in the city, though I made no attempt to get in touch with her there for fear of seeming like, well, a crazy stalker-person! :)
By '96, I was back in Austin, and she and I were still writing every now and then. That summer, she mentioned that she'd be driving with a friend from California to a new teaching gig at the University of Houston and that they'd be passing through Austin and spending the night at a hotel there... ON MY BIRTHDAY, as it turned out! Did I want to meet up for a drink or something?! "Oh my god," I thought. "This is FATE! We are going to meet on my birthday and fall madly in love. I just KNOW it!" :)
As I've written here on this blog years ago, the meeting wasn't so dramatic. She and her friend were late, arriving close to midnight. Her voice on the phone telling me they'd be late was annoying somehow. I'd been guzzling beers for hours before the meeting and wasn't so sharp. I was gauche (and poor!) in asking if she'd like to split paying for a bottle of champagne for me, since it was my birthday! The hotel lobby was completely, oddly deserted except for us. We politely chatted, and sipped champagne, sans any sparks (physical or emotional or intellectual) whatsoever. When the champagne was gone, she kindly gave me a hug when I left.
I bought her 2nd story collection "Because They Wanted To" that came out the next year, but we never resumed our correspondence. And I lost interest in her subsequent books: 2005's novel "Veronica" (a National Book Award finalist that got much attention upon its release) and 2009's story collection "Don't Cry."
Cut to 17 years past our '96 meeting. Last week in the Austin library, I accidentally came across 2005's "Veronica." I'd read vaguely that it was about "a model in the narcissistic '80s." Like the first time I accidentally came across Gaitskill's work in the early '90s, I was now in another very bad mental state about a relationship and about the world in general -- "There's no love, no nothing, anywhere" -- and wasn't at all in the mood to read anything about "shallow people in the narcissistic '80s." But, what the hell, I checked it out just in case I could stop lying on my bed watching TV and hating my inability to connect with someone I loved long enough to pick it up.
Yesterday, I finally did lethargically pick it up. I hadn't read her work in 16 years, hadn't thought much about her... By page 15, the passage about "style suits," I dug around for my cache of sticky flags so I could mark this insight: "There is always a style suit, or suits. When I was young, I used to think these suits were just what people were. When styles changed dramatically -- people going barefoot, men with long hair, women without bras -- I thought the world had changed, that from then on everything would be different. It's understandable that I thought that; TV and newsmagazines acted like the world had changed, too. I was happy with it, but then five years later it changed again. Again, the TV announced, 'Now we're this instead of that! Now we walk like this, not like that!' Like people were all runny and liquid, running over this surface and that, looking for a container to hold everything in place, trying one thing, then the next, incessantly looking for the right one. Except the containers were only big enough for one personality trait at a time; you had to grab on to one trait, bring it out for a while, then put it back and pull out another one. For a while, 'we' were loving; then we were alienated and angry, then ironic, then depressed. Although we are at war with terror, fashion magazines say we are sunny now. We wear bright colors and choose moral clarity...."
I sat up in the bed and turned the TV way down. And read for the next 3 hours with HUGE HUNGER, just as I had for the first time back in '92 or so. Flagging every beautiful passage, so grateful for every word by her that again fed my soul and let me know that I was NOT alone in the universe.
By the time I got to the last passage that I noted below, I finally just broke down and wept. With utter relief at the mercy of it all.
Today at work, I looked for latter-day interviews with her. In one, she said: "There is so much hope, struggle, and suffering that we don't see, because it's almost impossible to convey -- you have to be so inside the person to understand. Do you remember the scene in 'The Metamorphosis,' when Gregor the bug is trying to turn his doorknob with his mandibles and his family is on the other side of the door yelling at him, 'What's wrong? Just open the door!' They have no idea how hard it is because they don't know what he is, and there's the sense that they've never known -- that is a perfect picture of what I mean."
PASSAGES FROM "VERONICA":
I understood that Cecilia looked at me as an object with specific functions, because that's how I looked at her. Without knowing it, that is how I looked at everyone who came into my life then. This wasn't because I had no feelings. I wanted to know people. I wanted to love. But I didn't realize how badly I had been hurt. I didn't realize that my habit of distance had become so unconscious and deep that I didn't know how to be with another person. I could only fix that person in my imagination and turn him this way and that, trying to feel him, until my mind was tired and raw.
If you can't find the right shape, it's hard for people to identify you. On the other hand, you need to be able to change shape fast; otherwise, you get stuck in one that used to make sense but that people can't understand anymore. This has been going on for a long time. My father used to make lists of his favorite popular songs, ranked in order of preference. These lists were very nuanced, and they changed every few years. He'd walk around with the list in his hand, explaining why Jo "G.I. Jo" Stafford was ranked just above Doris Day, why Charles Trenet topped Nat King Cole--but by a hair only. It was his way of showing people things about him that were too private to say directly. For a while, everybody had some idea what Doris Day versus Jo Stafford meant; to give a preference for one over the other signaled a mix of feelings that were secret and tender, and people could sense these feelings when they imagined the songs side by side.... But eventually those feelings got attached to other songs, and those singers didn't work as signals anymore. I remember being there once when he was playing the songs for some men he worked with, talking excitedly about the music. He didn't realize his signals could not be heard, that the men were looking at him strangely. Or maybe he did realize but didn't know else to do but keep signaling. Eventually, he gave up, and there were few visitors. He was just by himself, trying to keep his secret and tender feelings alive through these same old songs.
Together, we were able to express something in ourselves that was buried -- I don't quite know what it was, but I've been thinking. It sometimes felt like I was something he needed to knock down over and over, and I would always pop back up. He needed that and so did I, the popping back up.
No. People who loved each other would never treat each other, or allow themselves to be treated, with such indifference and cruelty. But even as I thought this, I felt, rising from under thought, the stubborn assertion of love living inside their disregard like a ghost, unable to make itself manifest, yet still felt, like emotion from a dream.
I imagine Veronica's spirit stripped to its skeleton, then stripped of all but its shocked, staring eyes, yet clinging to life in a fierce, contracted posture that came from intense, habitual pain. I imagine the desiccated spirit as a tiny ash in enormous darkness. I imagine the dark penetrated by something Veronica at first could not see but could sense, something substantive and complete beyond any human definition of those words. In my mind's eye, it unfurled itself before Veronica. Without words it said, I am Love. And Veronica, hearing, came out of her contraction with brittle, stunted motions. In her eyes was recognition and disbelief, as if she were seeing what she had sought all her life, and was terrified to believe in, lest it prove to be a hoax. No, it said to Veronica. I am real. You have only to come. And Veronica, drawing on the dregs of her strength and her trust, leapt into its embrace and was gone.