Just before I left my apartment to meet Mary Gaitskill, I slipped off my engagement ring. It just seemed . . . uncool. Too conventional, maybe, and the Mary Gaitskill I had stuck in my head seemed like the type of person who might not approve—that Greenwich Village waif with the dyed-red bob and deadpan gaze, whose predilection for tales of kink and misery suggested she might disdain such bourgeois display.
Instead, the Mary Gaitskill who showed up on Sixth Avenue looked way more like Marilyn Monroe, if Marilyn Monroe had lived happily ever after. She had the same high cheekbones and big eyes as in her iconic author photos, but she was drained all over to a uniform lemony white: pale skin, a vanilla cashmere turtleneck and white-blonde shoulder-length hair. As we settled into a booth at Café Loup, my eyes were drawn immediately to her hands, where I was startled to see a thick gold wedding band and a honking diamond right out of an engagement-ring ad. Well, hello.
I must emphasize how weird this was, like running into Tom Wolfe wearing torn sweatpants. But as we talked, and Gaitskill described her life over the past decade, as well as her latest novel, Veronica, a nominee for the National Book Award, I came to see this makeover as a logical reflection of her writerly metamorphosis. “I think it actually started in my late thirties,” she recalled over a glass of wine. “I started changing psychologically, and it was difficult to translate that into my writing.” For a while, she considered ditching the whole thing. “I quite frequently felt like I hated it. I don’t want to write. Whatever I had to say, I’ve said it. I didn’t want to keep forcing myself to grind out book after book. But I couldn’t think of anything else to do—it was like I was trying to look out a window for a certain kind of inspiration, and now that window was closed.”
Many writers go through such crises, but in Gaitskill’s case, these feelings must have seemed particularly acute; her writing had always appeared to spring directly from a damaged young woman’s gimlet view of the world around her. In 1988, when her short-story collection Bad Behavior came out, it became a dorm-room bible for women I knew: Finally, here was a fiction writer unafraid to walk straight through the feminist battlefields of that very strange period, when debates over “victimology” and date rape dominated the landscape. Her characters were stunted, smart, mean boys and the women they toyed with, as in “A Romantic Weekend,” in which an intellectual masochist has a disastrous assignation with a sociopath who has a very different idea of what constitutes kinkiness. In “Secretary” (the original source for the 2002 movie starring Maggie Gyllenhaal), a temp gets spanked by her boss, quits, and accepts a guilty payoff. Among writers who dealt with similar topics—and the shelves were full of them in those years, from Dennis Cooper’s nihilistic fantasies to Susie Bright’s chipper sex ed—Gaitskill was something special. She didn’t grandstand; she lacked self-pity. She had an intuitive sympathy for people acting on their worst impulses and a gift for portraying cruelty without condemnation. She managed to be an erotic writer without being, precisely, a sex writer.
Gaitskill herself seemed like a character from her own pages. She too was a downtown girl and a waif, someone who had cashed out her twenties on a series of sexual improvisations. She’d sold flowers in San Francisco as a teenage runaway and worked as a stripper and a call girl. But unlike the characters who populated her books, she was a success—even if that didn’t quite translate into mainstream literary success. It didn’t help that she wrote quite slowly. In 1991, she published Two Girls, Fat and Thin, a flawed novel about followers of Ayn Rand, and in 1998 a terrific collection of short stories called Because They Wanted To. Between books, she wrote for magazines—including a masterfully argued essay about rape that neatly undercut Camille Paglia and Wendy Kaminer, a piece in which Gaitskill described two times she had been assaulted, once by an acquaintance, once by a stranger.
And then she seemed to disappear, Cheshire-cat-like, leaving only her books. A new breed of writers had seized the “fresh young thing” slot—David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers and then the epidemic of Brooklyn Jonathans. By the time Secretary was released, few people knew that it was based on her short story. (Maybe not such a bad thing, since, to the writer’s distress, her ambiguous vignette had been turned, Pretty Woman style, into a kinky fairy tale with a happy ending.) Now, with Veronica—and the National Book Award nomination—a comeback seems imminent. Like so much of Gaitskill’s writing, Veronica concerns the inner workings of a curdled intimacy: in this case, the exploitative (but ultimately redemptive) friendship between a model and the title character, her embarrassingly uncool friend dying of AIDS—a figure based on a friend of Gaitskill’s. But the book also feels different from her earlier writing, with a dreamy, hallucinatory quality and a new obsession with mortality and aging.