Mary Gaitskill’s Private Theology

William Deresiewicz offers a damning assessment of one of my favorite contemporary authors, Mary Gaitskill, in The Nation. The problem, he says, is religion.

Gaitskill has always been a religiously concerned writer, though it wasn’t immediately evident in books like Bad Behavior and Because They Wanted To. A former editor of Gaitskill’s tipped me off to the subtext of religious anxiety in her chilly stories of sexual nihilism and self-loathing. Some of Gaitskill’s nonfiction — an essay on the New Testament, her own, rare criticism — offered more explicit statements of the religion that informed her work: a condition of alienation from a conservative and yet erotic faith she suspected lay outside the bleak room in which she composed her fiction.

Deresiewicz makes a compelling case that it was that distance that made Gaitskill’s work “penetrating,” a term he uses several times to describe her first three books. Now, he charges, Gaitskill’s theology is too plain. What’s more, it’s no longer a religion of alienation but one of resolution. Deresiewicz accuses Gaitskill of abandoning theodicy.

A disabling self-consciousness appears to have crept into Gaitskill’s work. The allegory, “Mirror Ball,” exemplifies the problem. The premise is familiar: two young hipsters dealing with the emotional fallout of a one-night stand. But Gaitskill chooses to render the situation in symbolic terms that drain it of life. The boy, we’re told, has stolen a part of the girl’s soul, the part that “was joined with Ardor, and it compelled…the part of his soul that was joined with Hunger.” The girl’s soul-part gets trapped in the depths of the boy with the soul-parts of the other girls he’s slept with (Gentleness, Forbearance, Instinct), all of them circling the walls of the prison where half of the boy’s own soul got trapped when he was 2, on account of a withholding mother. And so forth. The whole thing sounds like The Pilgrim’s Progress as retold by Dr. Phil. The psychological dynamics Gaitskill once portrayed with such subtlety and plasticity have now hardened into a theory.

The theory involves a kind of sexualized cosmology. Its central image is that of a hole or shaft, “dark and deep as the pit of the earth. At the bottom of it ran boiling rivers of Male and Female” bearing “raw matter” and “primary force.” This is the female anatomy raised to a metaphysical first principle. At the same time, it is precisely “because she has the open part” that this “hell of shapeshifting and destruction”–“the deep place of sex”–is especially dangerous for a woman. “She needs rules, structures, intact shapes to make sure the openness doesn’t get too open.” “For a man, it is different…. He can walk triumphant in a place of no place.” Some of this is clear enough, some of it is pretty opaque, but the whole thing appears to constitute a private theology that has replaced the kind of intuitive exploration that Gaitskill once did so well.

I don’t use the religious term lightly. Veronica culminates in some fairly woolly mysticism about how the title character is received after death into the arms of “Love,” plus a dream vision in which she ascends to heaven perfected in body and soul.

I haven’t read the two most recent books, but Deresiewicz captures so precisely much of what I found powerful in the earlier work that I worry he may be correct about what he calls Gaitskill’s “artistic midlife crisis.” On the other hand, there’s the problem of his use of religious terms: Protestations aside, he does use them lightly. “Mysticism” is clearly, in his analysis, a dirty word, but not even a particularly dangerous one; it’s “woolly.”

“The implications are clear,” he writes. “The lost will be found, the grieving comforted, the broken made whole. This kind of sentimentalism… is frequent in the new collection.”

Redemption and salvation are indeed themes especially vulnerable to sentimental treatment. (Witness the desecration of song that was Michael Apted’s film rendition of “Amazing Grace.”) But here Deresiewicz proceeds from the assumption that they are inherently sentimental. Absent the possibility of religious truth, they are. But if we allow that possibility — not insist upon it but simply allow it — sentimentalism itself might be delivered from the artistic evil Deresiewicz calls “mystery-mongering.” If we don’t allow that possibility, we’re like atheists in a cathedral, capable of little more than an appreciation for marble and craft.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).