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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2022

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.

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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 McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café about the objects of love. Not only is the choice of someone to love irrational, McCullers says, but the pleasure derived from love is always disproportionate. The one who loves is always happier than the one who is loved; indeed, being beloved can be burdensome.

McCullers’ point is clearly illustrated in “The Dentist.” The story begins with a detailed description of a young woman’s reaction to a sexually charged billboard advertising the perfume Obsession. Jill, the protagonist of the story, is no fool; she knows that she is given to flights of fancy. Indeed, without an unfettered imagination she could hardly turn out the magazine essays by which she supports herself. Jill is also well aware that her present obsession is a bit ridiculous. She fell in love with her dentist solely because he was sympathetic when a procedure caused her an abnormal degree of pain. Perhaps feeling responsible for her agony, the dentist loaned her his laptop computer after her word processor expired. Objectively, Jill can see that this casual kindness was not meant as an overture to passion. She even realizes that the dentist is dull, middle-aged, and not particularly attractive. Moreover, after enticing him into her apartment, she discovers that he is sexually conservative, certainly too much so for her taste. Nevertheless, Jill is so enslaved by her obsession that neither her friends’ warnings nor her own common sense can temper her enthusiasm. In a series of hilarious scenes, she arouses first misgivings, then real terror, in the object of her passion. In actuality, Jill has no more chance of getting what she wants from the dentist than her friend Joshua does from the lesbian who occupies center stage in his fantasy dramas.

Although Gaitskill’s subject matter is rather limited and there are marked similarities among her characters, she exhibits great skill and versatility in her handling of tone. For example, though several of these stories illustrate McCullers’ comments about the inequality of love, there is all the difference in the world between “The Dentist” and “The Girl on the Plane.” Jill’s thoughts and misgivings, as Gaitskill reports them, and her comments to her friends make it clear that she has too much good sense to regard herself as a tragic heroine. Moreover, any doubt as to the author’s intent in this story would surely be dispelled by the dentist’s desperate excuse for fleeing from Jill’s apartment: he must leave immediately, he says, because he has to feed his dog.

The tone of “The Girl on the Plane” is very different. Beneath the seemingly casual surface of this story lies real tragedy, which is even more heartbreaking because the protagonist is too obtuse to admit his own perfidy. After barely making his plane, John Morton is not in the best of tempers; in fact, he is bitter about his job and his life. After some casual remarks to a young woman seated next to him, Morton notes her resemblance to a girl he knew in college. Eventually he discovers that his fellow passenger also attended that school. A whole set of memories come flooding back into Morton’s mind: how much he had at first liked that girl, how inexplicably his liking had turned to loathing when she admitted her feelings for him, and how that very evening, after she was drunk, he had joined in gang- raping her. She never spoke to him again, Morton recalls, but clearly he has never come to terms with what he did. In fact, he is surprised when his casual admission of having raped someone so shocks his seatmate that she can hardly wait to get away from him. After the plane lands, he tries to follow her, murmuring apologies, but they are merely perfunctory. Obviously, it is the past, not the present, with which he should be dealing.

“Kiss and Tell” takes up a more conventional situation. Instead of the object of obsession, here it is the obsessive lover who turns hateful. When the actress girlfriend of a screenwriter achieves success and soars out of his reach, he avenges himself by making her the central character in his new script, titled “Kiss and Tell.” Naturally, his portrait of Nikki is not flattering. To his delight, the script is purchased.

The target of his venom, who is a candidate for the leading role, sees the script and descends upon him, breathing fire. At that point, the story becomes all too real. What the writer has lost, he finds, is not only any hope of getting Nikki back but also his erotic fantasies involving her.

By and large, the males in Gaitskill’s stories are not admirable. Nevertheless, one must sympathize with Michael, the young man in “The Blanket,” who appears in Valerie’s life at a time when she is starved for sex. At her suggestion, they begin to act out fantasies, and all goes well until Valerie’s vision alters and she suddenly sees Michael as a rapist. The story underlines the dangers inherent in sexual fantasies, but it also offers more hope than is usual in Gaitskill’s fiction, for Valerie finally takes pity on her lover, who is very nearly freezing to death outside the covers, and invites him under the blankets and back into her life.

Although Gaitskill is well known for writing explicit descriptions of sexual activities, often of a bizarre nature, she is interested in sex less as an athletic exercise than as a way human beings try to escape from isolation, to connect with others. Most of the time, the effort fails and the lovers part, sometimes as friends, more often as enemies. Nevertheless, as Gaitskill’s final selection suggests, it is possible to achieve something better. The novella “The Wrong Thing” is divided into four parts, each dramatizing an aspect of love. Thus “Turgor” shows how pure lust is not a good basis for a heterosexual relationship, while “Respect” reveals the inadequacy of a more old-fashioned system. In “Processing,” the narrator describes the delights of a lesbian involvement, but this, too, ends in disillusionment. Significantly, the only time any of Gaitskill’s characters attain a state of joy is in the final scene of “The Wrong Thing,” when a group of women friends are gathered in a garden. Although some of them have been lovers and some may later be lovers, there is no jealousy, no obsession, no fantasy, just an easy companionship. At the end of her book, then, Gaitskill seems to be rejecting the notion that sexual activity, no matter how inventive, can bring women anything except temporary pleasure. Only in friendship, she indicates, can women find release from that isolation that is so burdensome to the human spirit.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, January 1, 1997, p. 818.

Chicago Tribune. March 9, 1997, XIV, p. 9.

Library Journal. CXXII, January, 1997, p. 152.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 19, 1997, p. 2.

Ms. VII, January, 1997, p. 79.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, February 9, 1997, p. 8.

Newsweek. CXXIX, January 20, 1997, p. 57.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, November 25, 1996, p. 57.

The Village Voice. February 4, 1997, p. 51.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXIII, Summer, 1997, p. 94.

Women’s Review of Books. XIV, May, 1997, p. 8.

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