Mary Gaitskill’s “The Other Place”

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I drew the Queen of Hearts this week for my Deal Me In short story reading challenge. Back when I was planning my roster for this year (and prior years) the name of author Mary Gaitskill kept coming up as a recommendation. When I saw that one of her stories was included in my copy of The Best American Short Stories of 2012, I quickly reserved a place for it on my list.

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“The Other Place” is, frankly, a disturbing story to read. It deals with a man who, in outward appearance at least, appears to be “just a normal guy.” One like many men these days, who are troubled about their children’s fondness for the violent video games, movies, or music of today’s world. The story takes on a chilling nature, however, when we learn that the narrator himself has “a past” which included violent fantasies – fantasies that he came within a hair’s breadth of acting upon.

The “other place” in this story’s title refers to that realm where the narrator’s darker thoughts could take on a reality of their own. In his past, certain situations would arise – or be sought out by the narrator – where “The Other Place” was readily accessible. Once, for example, while “following” female students at a nearby college he says, “I’d feel the other place running against the membrane of the world, almost touching it.” Creepy.

This story makes one think – or realize – that there is a thin line between violent thought or fantasy and violent action. How many people are there “out there” like this story’s narrator? People who just barely hold it together in their lives? It’s an unsettling question to ponder, but through it all, I found Gaitskill’s treatment of this difficult subject matter quite masterful, and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.

This story may be read online at http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2011/02/14/110214fi_fiction_gaitskill?currentPage=all

Or, listen to this story (read by Jennifer Egan) at http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/03/fiction-podcast-jennifer-egan-reads-mary-gaitskill.html

Or, better yet, watch the author herself reading it at an appearance at Rutgers University: http://vimeo.com/66047286

I also found an interview with the author in the New Yorker to be very interesting: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2011/02/mary-gaitskill-the-other-place.html
I’ll share one quotation here:

“It’s one thing to entertain an idea, even to feel it physically, quite another to act on it. Our culture encourages people to entertain these feelings; I realize that this is old-fashioned of me, but I sometimes consider that a sign of decadence, playing with something that shouldn’t be played with. At the same time, it is an attempt to sort something out, to grapple with the reality of these feelings. In this country, apparently normal family men joined lynch mobs, and normal communities went along with it; we all know what happened in Rwanda and Bosnia. Of course, we want to understand this, or to cope with it somehow, because it’s frightening.”

Gaitskill’s “contributors note” in the back of the Best Short Stories of 2012 collection:

“I wrote “The Other Place” for a very simple reason. I was afraid. I was living alone in a flimsy fishbowl house on a college campus that, as far as I was concerned, was a pervert magnet. The climactic scene of the story came to me before I had any intention of writing a story; I think it appeared in my mind because I wanted to imagine killer and victim coming right up to the crucial moment and the both walking away unharmed. At some point after that, the story formed.”

What about you? Have you read anything by Mary Gaitskill? Any works you’d recommend I follow up this reading with?

(Below – from Wikipedia – author Mary Gaitskill)

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10 Comments

  1. June 8, 2014 at 10:54 am

    I’m a big fan of Mary Gaitskill. Of course, there is her collection, “Bad Behavior,” that I would recommend. I’ve also read one of her novels, “Veronica.” The writing is strong and devastating. She always writes about more difficult topics.

    • Jay said,

      June 11, 2014 at 12:25 pm

      Thanks for the recommendations. I read about Bad Behavior during my ‘research’ for this post. Not sure which direction I’ll go next with her.

  2. June 8, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    Maybe I should put her in m next deck. I have heard of her, but I’ve never read her.

    She really should have included family women not just family men in her answer to the question above, though. Plenty of women attended lynch mobs in the U.S. and some of the main drivers protesting integration in Little Rock were white mothers. T

    • Jay said,

      June 11, 2014 at 12:26 pm

      Excellent point, James. I remember while reading Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” that the “cheerleaders” were particularly odious…

  3. Candiss said,

    June 9, 2014 at 8:57 pm

    I’ve never read her, but her story “A Romantic Weekend” is in my DMI deck. I suspect there will be little romantic about it.

    Great review! And thanks for the links.

    • Jay said,

      June 11, 2014 at 12:27 pm

      Thanks, Candiss. I think three of us had included at least one Gaitskill story in our DMI rosters. I think I was the first one to draw her card though.

  4. Dale said,

    June 10, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    Jay, this one sounded creepy and scary – but not in the ghost story, horror manner. Reminded me again of the Joyce Carol Oates story “The Girl With the Blackened Eye” (I think that’s the title of it). I still consider that to be about the scariest story I’ve ever read.
    -Dale

    • Jay said,

      June 11, 2014 at 12:28 pm

      I remember that story, Dale. I’m glad whoever picked it changed her mind and we didn’t have to actually discuss it in mixed company… :-) It DID lead me to read more of JCO, though, for which I am quite grateful.
      -Jay

  5. hkatz said,

    June 16, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    This does indeed sound tense and disturbing. I also like her comment on exploring why seemingly normal people with normal lives join lynch mobs or do other brutally violent things.

    I recently discovered Gaitskill myself with her story, “The Girl on the Plane,” which is also deeply disturbing and explores the way people’s longing for sexual intimacy can be utterly perverted by violence, constricting social roles, poor self-awareness, and toxic ideas about masculinity. There’s also an exploration of why people who are just regular people can do brutal things without really acknowledging what they’re doing and why people might also damage themselves if they feel lost.

    • Jay said,

      June 17, 2014 at 6:37 pm

      Thanks for the great comment, HK. I definitely plan to read more by her – maybe I like being made uncomfortable by good, creepy stories.

      And you’re absolutely right about “regular people” and their capacity for evil and brutality. I really believe the thread that holds many of us together is frighteningly thin…


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