The precise constructions of Mary Gaitskill’s nonfiction

Cover00Sasha Frere-Jones at Bookforum:

Give or take six years, the essays and book reviews here span the length of Gaitskill's career so far. You could lose a slice of this book without doing much damage; you don't need her introduction to Bleak House unless you are reading Bleak House, or the brief piece on Talking Heads and Remain in Light that doesn't engage either seriously. But Somebody with a Little Hammer makes the case for Gaitskill's centrality as a writer and burns off dodgy concepts that have stuck to her work. If you have not yet worked through a thought with Gaitskill, Somebody is a primer. It makes entirely clear how seriously she takes the idea of fairness, in life and in fiction, and how averse she is to even the lightest thumb on the scale.

The opening piece is from 1994, a riff on the Book of Revelation called "A Lot of Exploding Heads." Her conclusion, as a not very religious person who knows the chapter well, sounds like something she might have left tacked above her desk for the next twenty years: "I still don't know what to make of much of it, but I'm inclined to read it as a writer's primitive attempt to give form to his moral urgency, to create a structure that could contain and give ballast to the most desperate human confusion."

Her brief essay on J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, "a book that doesn't condescend to young children," is a plug for learning emotional flexibility early and disavowing easy pleasures. When Peter Pan chooses to fly away not with Wendy but with Jane, her daughter, Gaitskill chalks it up to "the remorseless system that we call reality." If you think she is shilling for brutality, less than a page later she compares Barrie's version to Disney's and concludes that, "while the movie has much of the play and irreverent humor of the children's book, it has none of the gentleness—a quality that for all its sentimentality, popular culture seems no longer to understand." Gaitskill extends her reach until she is touching both ends of a moral axis and then maintains the position.

more here.