Saturday, February 19, 2011

The New Yorker: "The Other Place" by Mary Gaitskill

Yikes. Not sure I’ve read Gaitskill before, so I was looking forward to this one. But I think I regret it. Narrator’s son Doug, 13, seems a little disturbed, but maybe not so different from other kids (which is even more disturbing). He likes violent video games (and violent drawings that seem related to the games) and hates almost everything else (although he does seem to respond to fishing with his father). He’s also got a speech impediment and a tremor.

All of that is revealed in the first couple of paragraphs and we’re prepared for a story about a twisted boy, but it turns out that the story is mostly about Doug’s father, the narrator, who isn’t much different from his son, and has done some pretty twisted things of his own. The mother’s got a checkered history herself. No wonder the kid is messed up.

But the father: he’s always had an active, violent fantasy life and even became sexually aroused at the thought of killing a woman. He spied on the girl next door, but, fortunately, didn’t turn her into a victim. He followed a college girl with a view to making her his victim—by then he possessed a gun he’d stolen from a friend’s father—but that didn’t work. Finally, though, he hitchhikes and is picked up by a woman whom he then threatens to kill.

Meanwhile, we learn that the narrator’s mother was high-class hooker before she got married, and wasn’t much better after she divorced his father. And she says she was abused as a kid. Hmm. So--another troubled childhood.

A key, perhaps: “The hurts of childhood that must be avenged: so small and so huge.” The line suggests to me that “the other place” where the narrator retreated as a boy for his violent fantasies, and where he sees his son going now in and out of video games, is a product of “the hurts of childhood.” This makes all the more important the connection that the narrator thinks he can make with his son while they are fishing: “The second time I put my hand on Doug’s shoulder, he didn’t move away inside; he was too busy tuning in to the line and the lure.” The narrator knows that “the other place” is inside him, but at least his son won’t be alone.

February 14 & 21, 2011: “The Other Place” by Mary Gaitskill

6 comments:

Ellen Parker said...

But I don't think any member of the family is exceptionally messed up--that is, no more "messed up" than a lot of us are. I think part of the point of the piece is that these people are fairly representative of a "normal" (at least, normal appearing) American family. And I believe that's true. Inside, I think, we are all superfreaks!

sloopie72 said...

I had a "maybe, maybe not" reaction to the story - it's pretty creepy, but there's a foundation for everything. But it's the interview with Mary Gaitskill at http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2011/02/mary-gaitskill-the-other-place.html that really set me off. Maybe I was just primed, but it seemed very combative. And I was surprised how that triggered my combativeness. Nothing to do with knives and guns, though. Or sharks.

Clifford Garstang said...

sloopie, thanks for the link to the interview; meant to do that and forgot

Ellen, um, I hate to break it to you, but that family is messed up. There may be a lot of "superfreaks" out there, but I'm pretty sure that superfreak is not normal. No offense.

Valerie Nieman said...

Thanks for your review, Cliff. I'll have to look up some other Gaitskill and see.

Paul said...

Cliff,

Probably, this would be one of my candidates for story of the year. As for your story-blog, I think you do a good job of summarizing some of the themes. However, your somewhat negative verdict -- "I think I regret it" -- doesn't seem justified or explained. So I was a bit puzzled by your comments, surprisingly so, since I usually find your review/comments exceptionally clear.

If you have time, I would appreciate it if you could say what the story weaknesses are (if you think there are any.)

Thank you,

Paul Epstein

Clifford Garstang said...

Paul,
I thought I was clear. The story is disturbing. That's not a criticism of the story. I find the father to be a scary individual whom I don't want to meet, and as Ellen says in an earlier comment he might be the guy living next door. So what I mean is that I regret it in the sense that I might regret watching a horror film.