In her earlier fiction, Mary Gaitskill examined the frustrations of her characters, usually young New Yorkers, as they tried desperately to find something better in life than unrewarding jobs and unfulfilling relationships. Although there were marked stylistic differences between the short-story collection Bad Behavior (1988), which was much admired for its spare, precise language, and the novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991), which tended to ramble, both of the books dealt with the need of human beings to connect with one another and their difficulty in doing so. This is also the subject of Because They Wanted To.
One of the most poignant stories in the new collection illustrates this thematic pattern. In “Tiny, Smiling Daddy,” a reserved, middle-aged man learns that an article by his grown daughter about him has just appeared in a widely circulated magazine. While waiting for his wife to bring home the car so that he can go out and buy the magazine, the protagonist recalls their daughter in various stages of her development: the happy little girl who found her father highly amusing; the moody adolescent, a lesbian, isolated from her schoolmates; and the beautiful adult who comes home to visit her parents but never admits them to her thoughts. To the father’s disappointment, the article focuses not on the happy moments he shared with his daughter but instead on the present distance between them. Ironically, his daughter’s feelings toward him are much like his about his own father, who was never kindly and died early. What the protagonist does not understand is that he lost his own child in a single moment, when, learning that she was a lesbian, he essentially expelled her from the family.
Typically, Gaitskill’s characters find family relationships uneasy and unpleasant. When the protagonist of “Comfort” returns to Iowa after hearing that his mother has been injured in a car crash, he finds himself in the middle of the usual family squabbles. Although Daniel does have to admire his mother’s courage and even his father’s effectiveness with an indifferent hospital staff, he also sees how miserable his mother’s life has been, primarily because though his father is good at blustering, he can never bring off his grandiose schemes.
Deprived of the support that strong families can provide, the characters in Because They Wanted To turn elsewhere for love and understanding, but usually they are disappointed. Back in San Francisco, Daniel expresses his anger toward his girlfriend, Jacquie, who did not bother even to send his mother a card.
Because he is still enamored of her, Daniel manages to convince himself that Jacquie is really a good person, but the time will come when he sees how totally self-centered she is.
Gaitskill’s world seems to be filled with people who are incapable of empathy. In “Orchid,” Margot happens to meet a former roommate, Patrick, whom she has not seen for sixteen years, and the two renew their friendship. Unfortunately, Patrick has lost the good looks that prompted his mother to call him her orchid and that blinded nearly everyone to his real nature. Now Margot revises her opinion; Patrick, she realizes, is as narcissistic as his sister had said. Indeed, the “orchid” is incapable of feeling another’s pain and therefore unable to sustain any relationship. His professions of concern or even of love are no more than mere words.
Although not all Gaitskill’s characters are as insensitive as Patrick, most of them are so busy attempting to fulfill their own needs that they cannot be troubled with the problems of others. As the title of the book suggests, these people are motivated only by their whims. Their pursuit of happiness propels them in and out of each other’s lives, unhampered by any sense of responsibility or any lingering guilt. The protagonist of the title story, for example, is sixteen-year-old Elise, who ran away not because of any mistreatment but simply because she felt like it. While she knows that her parents love her, she does not feel any urgency about letting them know that she is safe. Like many other characters in these stories, she simply drifts through life. When she runs out of money, Elise casually takes the baby-sitting job offered by a young mother who has run away from an abusive husband. Elise is too preoccupied with her own thoughts to pay much attention to her charges. She does remain with them for five hours beyond the time their mother had promised to be home, and when she walks out, she does tell someone that she is leaving. Yet she never bothers to find out whether the mother ever returned or whether, as one suspects, she seized this opportunity to free herself from responsibility.
Unable to deal with reality, the characters in Because They Wanted Tooften retreat into fantasy. Appropriately, the epigraph Gaitskill chose for this collection is a quotation from Carson...
(The entire section is 2022 words.)