(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In his 1997 review of Because They Wanted To, Craig Seligman compared Mary Gaitskill’s writings favorably with those of Flannery O’Connor. The driving forces behind most of Mary Gaitskill’s characters are the need for self-understanding and the need to connect with other people, both of which are irrevocably linked as each character fights for identity. Most of the characters in Gaitskill’s first collection of stories, Bad Behavior, share one huge problem: Each of them tries desperately to cling to the wrong person. Sometimes this seeming mistake leads a character closer to self-discovery, but, as often as not, it leads to that simplest of literary ironies where the reader can clearly see what the character cannot. The motivation of the characters in Gaitskill’s second collection, Because They Wanted To, is essentially escape from a past they feel defines them in a way they cannot fully accept. Both collections are filled with what might be called “weird” sex (prostitution, sadomasochism, rapes, gang bangs, date rapes, fetishes, role playing) often in very graphic detail, but the stories are less about sex than they are about the opportunity for connection, escape from isolation, and feelings of alienation. Even when the opportunities are missed-as they usually are-the characters and the story are enriched by revelations. The major difference in the two collections of stories is maturity. As should be expected, the more recent stories show a more stylistically even hand. The message most consistently delivered in both books is that separation and isolation are often necessary, even desirable.

“Daisy’s Valentine”

“Daisy’s Valentine” showcases three characters, none of whom has any hope of ever being in a normal, enduring relationship. Joey, a delusional, epileptic speed freak, lives with Diane, a paranoid, epileptic speed freak living on government checks. When Diane learns that Joey has slept with a character named Daisy, she attacks him, rips out his earring, and throws him out of their apartment. Joey thinks he is falling in love with Daisy, a poster child for the insanely insecure, who works with him at a bookstore. Daisy lives with an abusive man, the only kind of man she thinks she can love. Joey spends much of his time daydreaming about rescuing Daisy from muggers, terrorists, and natural disasters. The heart of this story is in the disparities between how each character interprets his or her own motivations, how each of the other characters views them, and the impressions their actions and reactions leave on the reader. One major accomplishment of this story is that Gaitskill makes the reader care about people who are otherwise very hard to care about.

“Something Nice”

“Something Nice” is one of the few Gaitskill stories in which the leading male character is not a clear-cut villain. This is a story filled with ironies, the greatest of which is that readers see some of this man’s better qualities through an affair he has with a prostitute while his wife is out of town. After his first visit with the prostitute, he becomes so enamored of her that he...

(The entire section is 1299 words.)