The American writers extraordinary novella tells the story of one mans fall from grace with real nerve
Ostensibly, it seems quite shameless of Serpents Tail to have put Mary Gaitskills This Is Pleasure between hard covers. Her novella runs to a mere 84 tiny pages, each one printed in a typeface so large, the middle-aged will not even need to put on their glasses to read it; the story has, moreover, already appeared in its entirety in the New Yorker. But, in the present moment, this is an incendiary volume. Having read it twice, Ive come to feel that Gaitskills immaculate words demand such a protective casing though I could probably have done without the pouting lipstick kisses that adorn it.
This Is Pleasure is a response to #MeToo. Specifically, it would appear to be a response to the Google spreadsheet called Shitty Media Men (a list of allegations about various individuals in American publishing) that circulated on the internet in 2017. The tale is told, in alternate chapters, by two old friends, Margot and Quin. Both are married, middle-aged and work in publishing: Margot, who is American, is best known as the editor of a notorious collection of stories about masochistic women; Quin, an English dandy in New York, oversees an eclectic list of authors to whom he is uncommonly devoted.
Their friendship is intense, being based on mutual need, a long history, and an electricity that, though not precisely flirtatious, certainly has something to do with men and women and what goes on between them. Quin is of a generation that favours honesty over politeness and propriety. He is passionate, witty, delicately cruel, much given to inappropriate jokes and dares, and frequently downright dirty and though Margot likes to admonish him (this is central to their relationship), both her grandly suburban name and her special brand of morality belie her most essential self, which is unconventional and deeply interested in the kinks and strangenesses that we all comprise, whether we care to admit it or not.
When she isnt cross with him, she is thrilled by him. When she isnt offended, she is curious. Sometimes, she is all these things at once. Quin, you see, imbibes people. He understands that most human beings, and particularly most young women, are starved of perceptive questions; that they are expected to listen to one self-obsessed man after another and that by inquiring after their innermost thoughts (something that, in any case, genuinely turns him on), he makes himself vital, challenging, unsettling and, thus, deeply and subversively attractive. Margot enjoys watching this, and in her own case, receives it, usually, as a particularly mesmerising form of kindness. Being of the same generation, however, she is also apt to be indulgent. If Quin and she are agreed on anything, it is that sex is the core of personality. His needs and his great charm, then, are to some degree inseparable in her eyes.
When the book opens, Quin has been disgraced, removed from his job following allegations of inappropriate behaviour made by several young women. Nothing in This Is Pleasure, however, is clear cut. If Gaitskills narrative is dextrous, taut and pertly sexy, it is also ambivalent, hell bent on a certain kind of obfuscation. Naturally, Quin is confused by the way those he thought of as friends and proteges have turned against him. But hes not the only one. Even as Margot gives her own account of his bad behaviour during one of their earliest encounters, he attempted to place his hand between her legs she is baffled by the charge card against him, hurt and worried for him, and convinced that his punishment outweighs the crime.
What about his other, younger female friends? Not all of them are fully with the programme. One tearfully confesses her regret at having signed the petition. Another to whom he once did something fully transgressive writes him a supportive note. His wife, a beautiful fashion writer, is disappointed, in more ways than one. I flirted, he tells her. I did it to feel alive without being unfaithful. She gazes at the sunset out of the window of their Upper East Side apartment. Youre not even a predator, she tells him, quietly, as though it would be better if he was.
Gaitskill isnt in the business of exonerating Quin. Nor is Margot simply a walking, talking embodiment of internalised sexism. If he has done things wrong, her grief and confusion arent misplaced. No, Gaitskills real interest lies in matters that can hardly be spoken at this point: things that even her characters struggle to articulate (And this is where the heart pain comes, thinks Margot, of her own newfound silence. Subtle. But real.) This interest begins with the question of female agency part of Margots bewilderment at the womens allegations has to do with the fact that she was able to stop Quin, during that first encounter, from putting his hand where she did not want it, simply by shoving her own hand in his face and gradually expands to include darker, more complex aspects of the psyche.
What do we want, and why? What happens when we are attracted by when we really long for things that we are told are off-limits, disgusting, unacceptable? Do people always mean what they say? At the heart of this extraordinary, daring, provocative, pitch perfect story lies the idea that, sometimes, we act out a truth, only to run from it. The sensible among us know that the running is true, too, and that between these two realities lies a world of pleasure and then, abruptly, pain.
This Is Pleasure by Mary Gaitskill is published by Serpents Tail (7.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over 15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99