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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George Saunders – Tenth of December

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Represented by the eight of spades, this is my 21st story form my 2014 Short Story Reading Challenge, “Deal Me In.” My complete roster of 2014 stories may be found here.

This was only my second foray into the writings of George Saunders. Last year, I found his story “Escape from Spiderhead” largely incomprehensible and never even posted about it as part of DMI2013 (though, in its honor, I did pick a spider-laden eight of spades image to use in this post). This story kind of started out the same way for me, but I think, before it ended, I was just starting to “get” Saunders (pictured below)  a little better.

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Saunders seems to be one of those writers who leaves most of the work “connecting the dots” of a story to the reader. He doesn’t spell out many details, at least specifically, or maybe they are only revealed slowly. Encountering this technique has often made me read a story twice, the second time enabling me to pick up on clues that were not obvious on the first pass. I must say this seems an unfair thing to do to your readers, though. What you thought was a story of 22 pages is really a reading burden of 44 pages. How inconsiderate! 🙂

I must say I liked the structure of this story, though. Told from two viewpoints, one of a young boy – a social outcast with a vivid world of his imagination, in which he is acting out an adventure when he sees an older man. We learn the man is suffering from a brain tumor and has ‘escaped’ his caretakers as part of his own adventure manufactured by his own vivid imagination. The boy tries vainly to incorporate seeing the older man into his fantasy adventure, but an emergency situation arises which, at least temporarily, has the power to yank them both back into the real world.

I own this story as part of the The Best Short Stories of 2012 anthology. (It was in the 2011 edition of this series where I read my other Saunders story)

The Tenth of December is also available online at http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2011/10/31/111031fi_fiction_saunders?currentPage=all
You may need a New Yorker subscription (I don’t think I was logged in as such when I found this page, but sometimes it seems to ‘remember’ me from my previous visit, so maybe it only let me view it because I’m a digital subscriber)

It’s also available as part of Saunders’ collection of the same name.

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(Below: one of several go to short story anthologies in my library)

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North Country by Roxane Gay

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I drew the ten of hearts for week 20 of my Deal Me In Short Story Reading Challenge. I own North Country as part of the 2012 Edition of “The Best American Short Stories” series, several volumes of which have provided fodder for my Deal Me In challenges over the past few years. I don’t think it is currently available for reading online anywhere, but spending a few bucks on The Best American Short Stories of 2012 isn’t a bad idea. 🙂 In selecting stories from this collection to include in my Deal Me In roster, I made use of the Contributors’ Notes section of the book. Here’s what Roxane Gay said about her story:

“I moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to pursue a Ph.D. and realized I had moved into a different world, one where it was cold and snowy and where nothing made sense. Everyone kept asking me if I was from Detroit, and it was confusing and irritating because I had never been asked such a thing in my life. I’m from Nebraska. Finally, a few months into my tour of duty, which would last five years, I realized, oh, right, the only black people they know are from Detroit. Then it became a game to see who would ask the question, how often, and how I might answer it. My responses got creative. In my fourth year, I met a logger who would do strange things like take me into the woods and bring me dead deer. I started to realize there was a lot more complexity and beauty in the U.P. than I had realized, so I wrote a story about it – a love letter to the North Country.”

I liked the story a lot and felt the author did an excellent job of capturing the feelings of alone-ness and isolation she must have encountered in her own situation. I loved the opening lines of the story:

“I have moved to the edge of the world for two years. If I am not careful, I will fall.”

Nice imagery. I also enjoyed how the author details how the narrator adapts to her new world, letting her guard down ever so slowly and never quite all the way. How her past “traumas” effect her current behavior, and so on. A good story, and one that made me want to read more by this author.

I didn’t find the text of the story available online anywhere, but I did find a video of the author reading her work it’s about 25 minutes long and can be found at http://vimeo.com/53978525

(below: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The edge of the world?)

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