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Mary Gaitskill: “The Other Place”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.  “The Other Place” was originally published in The New Yorker‘s February 14 & 21, 2011, issue.

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I’m familiar only with Mary Gaitskill’s reputation: great, dark writing about taboo topics.  I am not aware of having read any of her work before.  “The Other Place” certainly confirms her reputation for me, and I hope to look into more of her work soon.

The story begins by misdirecting our attention:

My son, Douglas, loves to play with toy guns.  He is thirteen.  He loves video games in which people get killed.  He loves violence on TV, especially if it’s funny.  How did this happen?  The way everything does, of course.  One thing follows another, naturally.

It would seem that the narrator, Douglas’s father, is going to relate a story about his son’s development into a desensitized lover of graphic violence.  To be honest, I wasn’t that interested at this point.  But quite soon the narrator introduces the taboo and his own perverse role.

My wife, Marla, says that this is fine, as long as we balance it out with other things — family dinners, discussions of current events, sports, exposure to art and nature.  But I don’t know.  Douglas and I were sitting together in the living room last week, half watching the TV and checking e-mail, when an advertisement for a movie flashed across the screen: it was called “Captivity” and the ad showed a terrified blond girl in a cage, a tear running down her face.  Doug didn’t speak or move.  But I could feel his fascination, the suddenly deepening quality of it.  And I don’t doubt that he could feel mine.  We sat there and felt it together.

I was not expecting this father to confess to his own love of violence, particularly violence against women.  Here he is worried about his son but then we suddenly learn that he himself feels the lusty fascination with a woman in captivity.  It’s a father-son moment, sure, but not the comforting kind.  The story becomes only more uncomfortable.

Shifting our attention from Douglas’s nascent lust, the narrator recounts his own adolescence.  ”I believe I had a normal childhood,” he says.  Gaitskill proceeds to write – in the softest language of nostalgia – the narrator’s perceptions, and they’re terrifying.

When I was a kid, I liked walking through neighborhoods alone, looking at housees, seeing what people did to make them homes: the gardens, the statuary, the potted plants, the wind chimes.  Late at night, if I couldn’t sleep, I would sometimes slip out my bedroom window and just spend an hour or so walking around.  I loved it, especially in late spring, when it was starting to be warm and there were night sounds — crickets, birds, the whirring of bats, the occasional whooshing car, some lonely person’s TV.  I loved the mysterious darkness of trees, the way they moved against the sky if there was wind — big and heavy movements, but delicate, too, in all the subtle, reactive leaves.  In that soft blurry weather, people slept with their windows open; it was a small town and they weren’t afraid.  Some houses — I’m thinking of two in particular, where the Legges and the Myers lived — had yards that I would actually hang around in at night.

The Legges had a daughter named Jenna: “She was on the ground floor, her bed so close to the window that I could watch her chest rise and fall the way I watched the grass on their lawn stirring in the wind.”  Going back to the beginning of the story, is the narrator concerned about his son?  Or is he somewhat proud?  We learn, after all, that they don’t necessarily have a lot in common and that the only thing they really succeed at doing together is fly fishing — and even that is a bit strained.

Then again, this is just the beginning of the story.  The narrator goes on to recount his fascination with violence against women, which started, as best he can remember, when he was about the same age as Douglas.

But suddenly, when I was about fourteen, I started getting excited by the thought of girls being hurt.  Or killed.  A horror movie would be on TV, a girl in shorts would be running and screaming with some guy chasing her, and to me it was like porn.

As the reader might expect, this lusty fascination isn’t perfectly satiated by the television.  The narrator’s imagination compensates:

And I would go invisibly into an invisible world that I called “the other place.”  Where I sometimes was passively watched a killer and other times became one.

As he admits later on, going to this other place ”was great.” 

Gaitskill isn’t writing about this topic just to make the reader uncomfortable.  She’s not writing against taboo just to be irreverent.  This is a sensitive piece.  Despite the despicable side of the narrator, we still see him as a loving father and a sensitive older man who, at this point, seems more nostalgic and fascinated in his younger self.  He obviously still suffers from (or is aroused by) his lust, but he comes off, to me, as genuinely worried about his son and grateful that he has gone through it himself so he can help, though this is probably something they can never talk about out loud.

I enjoyed this story immensely.  There is so much to think about, and Gaitskill’s writing was superb throughout.  I’m very curious about how others responded, so I’m looking forward to any comments.

31 thoughts on “Mary Gaitskill: “The Other Place””

  1. Thomas G. says:

    I am a HUGE Gaitskill fan. Having read all three of her story collections and her novel “Veronica”, I can say with some degree of certainty that, indeed, I am a groupie. My friend and I are fascinated by the “ice queen” (as we have dubbed Gaitskill).

    What struck me about this beautiful piece is that compared to her other stories, Gaitskill’s language seems different. Still precise and superbly constructed, but more masculine in a way. It reminded me of Richard Ford. It certainly works for the story, and impressed me.

    My favorite moment is in the car when our narrator decides that the wig woman/victim had already been “shot” before, from the inside. This is an image/idea that only someone like Gaitskill could conjure.

    I did not, however, like the final three paragraphs. It felt too much like she was trying to wrap this piece together, which is so unlike her. I favor the Gaitskill who lets the sickness linger, without explanation.

    Still, I would place bets that this will be one of the better stories this year–although so far, it’s been a good batch.

  2. Trevor says:

    Well, Thomas, you’ve convinced me to dig further. Where should I start?

  3. Thomas G. says:

    Well Veronica really is one of my favorite novels, so I’d probably say start there. It is both ugly and beautiful.

  4. Betsy says:

    I really like your point, Trevor, that Gaitskill misdirects our attention. The narrator says, “I believe I had a normal childhood.” As we get to know him and his mother, we question that, but then, we also wonder about what a normal childhood actually is. Then, at the end, he comments, “The hurts of childhood must be avenged, so small and so huge.” What the hurts were specifically for this man must be related to the fact that we don’t know his name, as if he doesn’t either. In a crucial conversation with his mother, when she refers to her prostitution, she doesn’t call her son by name, but instead, always talking about herself, she calls herself by name. He talks about how he goes stalking on the college campus, and he says, “I went to avoid my mother as much as anything.”

    The borderlines in this man are fascinating: as a child, he wanted to “touch other people’s things, drink in their lives.” Later, he says he wanted to be in place where he “could believe in and for a moment possess the goodness of their lives.” But he has also been possessed by fantasies of murdering people. The violence in the story is pervasive, and Gaitskill has him say, “One thing follows another, naturally.” You wonder what the thing was that preceded him getting stuck in a life that only feels intensely alive when he is fantasizing about doing violence to women. One clue is his intense and erotically charged reaction to his son crying out in a waking dream, “Where is Mommy?”

    I agree with you, Trevor. This was a rich, compelling story with so much to think about, and I think it has a lot to do with just what have called it: misdirection. The taboo subject, the man’s murderous mind, is so shocking it would be easy to assume that his murderous mind is the story’s only occupation. But there’s a lot more. Even the narrator comments about a video of a child-murderer, “Random murder just seems like a job he has to do. But why?” But there’s no simple answer. The story’s rich enough to have it hit you different ways each time you read it.

    I want to read her other work. I’m curious about her take on this “But why?” question that she has that character ask.

  5. Joe says:

    I agree with all the comments posted above, but in addition, I felt that the story was about something more general; namely, the idea that we all are alone when we go to “the other place.” For the characters in this story, it’s the dark violence/sex connection, but every fantasy takes us into a sort of alternate universe where we feel alone even though we know others must be in the same boat. I think Gaitskill does a good job of capturing that contradiction.

  6. Tim says:

    Definitely a haunting story. It’s been on my mind since reading it yesterday. The story has the potential to be either graphic and gratuitous in violence, or schmaltzy in the father and son bonding over fly fishing. Gaitskill doesn’t let it be either one. She navigates through the darkness and violence of a boy/teenager, and examines the love a father has for his son. The violence never manifests in a way that makes the reader loath the narrator, and the father/son bond never forms in a warming, predictable way. The narrator and his son grow closer, but the narrator will always be shut out of his son’s life up to a point.

    Great story.

  7. Ken says:

    I’ll chime in and agree that this is a good story. I liked how he is neither a psychotic killer nor innocent either. He’s gone to exactly the line-pointing a gun at a woman which would certainly be a crime-but then it turns out “o.k.” He can “move on” and become a father. What might have happened if the woman he picked up wasn’t disturbed? What will happen with his son? This is also very tense and riveting.

  8. Jon says:

    I have to disagree. Not about the writing of course, it is crisp and compelling, well done to say the least, one can smell the woods and the backroad when the narrator backs down from a woman not that moment afraid to die; one can feel the late night breeze when he stalks his teenage girl neighbors. So, ok, for the writing, Bravo! Bravo!, and all that.

    I found the end extremely scary. The narrator is looking forward to returning to his “other place” with his son, determined and intent. The boy “will not be alone.” I had no doubt the boy’s father narrator will find the strength imparted by teaching and so surpass his prior, somewhat pathetic, efforts. The boy and the narrator will kill some day. Psycho-sexual murder. Gee, what a gas!

    I found the middle extemely scary. The narrator in his egoism and sociopathy (that is, his inability to feel human empathy for his victims, his awareness solely on his own feelings when bringing terror and/or death to somone’s life) was strongly similiar to the actual BTK killer’s actual rambling disquisition at his actual sentencing. (That’s on the web and very informative to watch albeit equally disturbing, as a study in the self-absorbed rationalization of violence against others, much like this story.)

    I found the beginning extremely scary. It is “natural”, according to the narrator, for a small boy’s common fascination with toy guns to turn to psycho sexual sadism and murder. Natural. Great.

    In New York a few years ago there was a man who randomly stabbed an infant girl on the street. When asked why, he said, “I had to do it to feel better.” And he said he felt better once he had. He thought he had killed her when saying all this, in custody. You could look it up, as they say.

    Gaitskill is surely one hell of a fine writer. But what, apart from her skill in summoning a scene and making it real, is there to actually like about this story?

  9. Trevor says:

    Gaitskill is surely one hell of a fine writer. But what, apart from her skill in summoning a scene and making it real, is there to actually like about this story?

    I’d say that’s plenty enough to make it a great short story, Jon, though I think this story has a lot more than that to offer, though of course I wouldn’t include likeable characters there.

    Everything you say above, about how terrifying it is and disturbing, is spot on. Neither character is someone I’d want to be with, and it is terrifying that here they are presented as the next door neighbor and his son getting off together, albeit individually, on a violent preview for a television show. I think that, along with the horror, there is room for some humanity, though. These characters are not going to a good place, however much they like it. But there is some real conflict here, even if its the fine line the narrator displays between remorse and nostalgia. Plenty to wonder about, plenty to like, in my opinion.

  10. Jon says:

    My apologies for posting twice.

    Trevor, Betsy, I think you are right — misdirection is the theme. The direction of the story is all internal to the narrator. It’s all about the self absorbed him, nothing about the world he is in and the people whose peace and humanity he violates. So in that way it illustrates the blindness to humanity of those actual people who do actually act as the fictional narrator here does.

    Perhpas the story is Gaitskill’s challenge that we not fall for that misdirection, not accept the notion that the narrator is anything but a dangerous, disturbing menace. In other words, that we not accept the selff rationalizing delusions of a sadisitic murderous maniac. Otherwise I guess it’s just an exercise in cheap thrills, true-crime-porn dressed up for the literary set (no offense: that’s a set to which I too admit to membership or aspiration).

  11. Betsy says:

    Jon – I too found the story completely scary. What is thought provoking is that it nevertheless seems worthwhile. How is that? I have read that Gaitskill loves Nabokov, and loves Lolita, another piece of completely scary fiction. Ultimately,however, Lolita is (I think) about a broader issue than it seems on first encounter, that being slavery and the different forms of ownership slavery might take, and the different lies the perpetrator embraces as a defense. It develops therefore that Nabokov’s immoral plot is supported by a moral point of view. He’s interested in what constitutes the theft of a life, what shapes such a theft could take. It’s a little out of fashion (by about 50 years) to speak in terms of literature being either amoral, immoral or moral, but I don’t think you can read Lolita without confronting the issue. I am wondering if Gaitskill presents us with the same quandary. So one of my questions about Gaitskill’s story is – whose life is it that has been stolen, anyway, and what are the lies that the (murderous) thief uses as a defense?

  12. Jon says:

    Betsy – you are right of course that it is quite out of fashion to let concepts of morality play a role in one’s consideration of literature, and right too that it is sometimes completely impossible to read with one’s mind open and aware without doing so. (I also think you correctly identify the theme of Lolita.) For me this is one of those instances.

    I can’t agree that Gaitskill’s story seems worthwhile, but simultaneosuly understand that whether a story which is also a well executed piece of writing (as Gaitskill’s certainly is) seems worthwhile – or interesting or insightful, etc etc – is a function as much of the reader as of the story. Here, one may find identifying the lies which the narrator uses to justify himself, uses as a defense as you write, worthwhile. I just can’t – the insights that inquiry may yield are overwhelmed by a negative visceral reaction to his self-absorbed and selfish impostion through sexual violence and murder of his twisted emotional dysfunction. In the end, I just don’t care what his reason or excuse is, his vision of himself, his internal defenses, the sensations that drive him to it, how he deals with the aftermath, what he tells himself. To care about any of that strikes me as an implicit acceptance of his basic premise – that he is entitled to have the rest of us care for his claim to a place in the world despite his rejection, manifest in his acts, of the entitlment of others to their peace and their life.

    I just can not get awawy from the reality of what he describes. There is nothing interesting about a bloodied, violated body; about a suddenly broken and irretrievably ruined psychic life. Those things are solely and simply sad, overwhelmingly sad. Creating that sadness is this man’s ambition. His very existence calls for a forensic shrink and a cage, not an interested reader. I understand these are personal reactions and do not mean to suggest there is anything at all wrong with a reaction that finds Gaitskill’s story worthwhile or interesting.

    To try answering one of your questions, maybe the ones whose lives are stolen are the narrator’s son, who after all could just as easily be led away from and not to the twisted place; his wife, who understands that and wants to ensure it but who, along with her wish and human desire to make it so, is categorcially and silently rejected out of hand by the narrator; of course, anyone unfortunate enough to run into this creep while he takes his license; and probably himself – who fell down on the job in raising this guy anyway, and how exactly? But the plain fact that the question exists does not make the answer interesting.

    I don’t claim anyone “should” feel as I do about this story. It is just words on a page. I was sorry to have read it.

  13. Trevor says:

    I’m finding this discussion very interesting. And though I echo Jon’s view that no one should feel as I do about this story, I can’t help but respond, in the interest of discussion, not in backlash.

    To care about any of that strikes me as an implicit acceptance of his basic premise – that he is entitled to have the rest of us care for his claim to a place in the world despite his rejection, manifest in his acts, of the entitlment of others to their peace and their life.

    I don’t agree with this, Jon. To care about this — by which, I mean, to find this story worthwhile — is not to accept the character’s views at all nor is tantamount to standing aside to make way for him in our neighborhoods just because he is a struggling human being And even if some readers might find some sympathy, one can learn a lot by being taken in by Humbert Humbert provided one then recovers.

    I had to keep asking myself while reading the story whether I was intrigued because it was taboo. If it were just that — crime porn, as you described it above — I’d be disgusted by its indulgence. The story would then be one of the cultural objects it is criticizing, some bit of titillating violence dressed as provocative art. I found much more here, though.

    This is a disgusting character, all of his relationships are perverted by his obscene mind and his capacity to act on that obscenity. But Gaitskill’s viseral psychological acuity isn’t meant to titillate (though Gaitskill is surely aware that the story focuses on a character who would find this story titillating), nor is it, I don’t think, to make readers empathize with this man’s mind, at least, insofar as empathy incorporates care and sympathy.

    Despite the fact that reading this story is a potentially horrifying experience — which no one should feel is necessary — there are interesting ideas floating around that are worth considering, even if we’re not forensic psychologists. For the child, we could almost attribute his emergent psychopathology to a diet of popular culture. Gaitskill herself said, “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.” He watches violence to women artistically conveyed on television, in film, on the internet. However, the story suggests that as correct as this may be this would also be reductive; whatever the role of popular culture (and surely it is a player) we can’t fully attribute him to his culture since his father did not have these same sources. What caused the father to become this way in a time when one couldn’t access such violence at the click of a button? What causes this violence to erupt? How is it linked to sexuality? How, if afflicted, does one cope? How does this exact type of violence present itself each and every day in our communities?

    It might transgress the comfort threshold, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile nor does it mean that seeing it as worthwhile means buying the man’s plight.

  14. Jon says:

    Trevor, the fact that the guy is disgusting is not what, to my mind, makes the story lacking.

    Rather , I see it more as follows: the questions you pose about what leads people to commit horrendous violence against others do not require this story in order to be posed. They are posed all the time in numerous contexts.

    Next, the story does not even pretend to attempt to answer any of those questions. So seeking answers is not the purpose nor the value (“worthwhileness” if you will) of the story.

    So what does the story contribute? What is it About?

    It is about a suppossed though actually fictional view into the mind of a well-spoken perp, about his self rationalizations and defenses. The view reveals him to be completely self absorbed. Well, this is also neither surprising nor anything we learn from this story. Extreme self absorbtion and its imposition on others through the deliberate creation of misery is practically the definition of sociopathy.

    So I just don’t see what this story contributes. I suggested that it may be Gaskill’s challenge to us to not fall for the misdireection of such a person’s rationalizations. Because, actually, damn it all, the importance of that kind of behavior has nothing to do with the one who commits it. The only important thing about that kind of violence is the people against whom it is imposed. The rest is banal. Does anyone actually care about what the heck Dennis Rader in his twisted well-spoken mind was thinking? For a real life view of Gaitskill’s narrator’s thought processes watch Rader’s sentencing hearing. It is just disgusting, precisely becuase the guy actually thought anyone was interested in HIS emotional experience of the torture, sexual violence and murder he committed and he went on and on about it. That in itself was an enormous affront to everybody there (I have no connection to Kansas – I use Rader as a well known example only).

    If this story is worthwhile, I see it as so only in its potential to make people realize that the self absorbed thoughts of sociopathic creeps are not worth the time of day. That to grant such thoughts any attention (other than as an exercise in prevention) acknoweldges the thinker’s emotional existence as human. That is empathy. Perhaps Gaitskill is making the subtle point that as a species and community we should refuse to do that. We should not show empathy to those who have withheld it in the most horrendous fashion from others. It’s a dangerous thing to do.

    So the story asks nor implies any questions not asked commonly and repeatedly all the time, and it does nothing to answer those questions. In addressing the topics you suggest, the story is completely empty. So what does it offer? It offers an invitation to understand that the self-absorbed rationalizations for psycho sexual violence by those who commit it are utterly worthless.

    It also offers an illustration of how easily such rationalizations are given credence. Who cares “how one copes”? The real question is how do the rest of us cope with the narrator. And who says it’s an “affliction” – to assume it is carries all sorts of determinations about cause that afford the narrator and his thoughts precisely the legitimacy – i.e., the membership in humanity – which he and they should be denied.

    Seriously: what do you make of the hypothesis that the worth and purpose of Gaitskill’s story is the rejection of the common notion that these maniacs are worth listening to? In this view, the quote you cite about “playing with something that shouldn’t be played with” is the point of the story. I’m going with that point as the worth of this story.

    And if that is not the worth, and given that the story neither asks any even remotely original questions nor answers any common ones, what is the worth?

  15. Trevor says:

    And who says it’s an “affliction” – to assume it is carries all sorts of determinations about cause that afford the narrator and his thoughts precisely the legitimacy – i.e., the membership in humanity – which he and they should be denied.

    Though I called it an affliction because that is how the narrator portrayed it and not because I feel like he is the unwitting victim, I still, at this point, cannot go as far as you do by saying he should be denied membership in humanity. And even if I could, I’m still not averse to reading someone’s attempt to enter into this kind of devious, sick mind, so long as it isn’t gratuitous (regardless of my inability to articulate why, I don’t believe this is gratuitous).

    Also, I don’t believe that simply entering his mind and hearing what he has to say is the only thing Gaitskill is at here. Nor do I believe she is trying to answer questions. I not only have no problem with the fact that Gaitskill doesn’t attempt to answer any questions here, I’m glad she doesn’t. Answering questions, to me, is not the purpose of any good fiction. I think she is addressing some good issues, though.

    We’ve already touched on one, that by the rhetorical nature of confession, the narrator is attempting to draw in the reader, almost begging to be understood and, by that token, forgiven and perhaps begging forgiveness for his son. Whether he should be listened to at all is up to the reader, and I think this story does a great job starting up that conversation, even if many other things in life would cause such a conversation, not the least of which is the other work of fiction brought up here.

    But that’s not it. I think there is value here because Gaitskill is not presenting the kind of person that we could objectively call a murderer, and, again objectively, probably not even a threat. He’s the next door neighbor, first as a child, now as an adult, a successful businessman. He’s obviously articulate. It seems that not even the people who know him well would ever fathom just what he’s attracted to.

    There is a difference between this narrator and Humbert Humbert and Dennis Rader, and, hence, our ability to shut him off from humanity: this narrator hasn’t quite committed his crime. He’s trespassed and he’s come very close to murder, but I’m not sure there is an actus reus here a prosecutor could use to get him behind bars.

    It’s one thing to pose these questions after there has been some objective act, but how do we deal with this person before that? Legally, he cannot be prosecuted just because of his mens rea. So, as disturbed as we are by him, we must either go on living next to him or get out. There’s nothing we could legally do to shut him up or prevent him from interacting in society. That’s if ever there was any indication of just how dangerous he is.

    The worth of this story is causing us to confront all of these issues, whether we’ve confronted them before, in fiction or real life, notwithstanding — it’s an even better story because it doesn’t answer the questions or resolve the conflicts it raises.

  16. Betsy says:

    Jon, your point about Gaitskill’s story as “playing with something that shouldn’t be played with” – is interesting and valid. I think Gaitskill is, herself, in fact, making that point.

    But as to the further worth of the story – I would point to the role of the narrator’s mother in the murderous turn that the narrator’s character takes.
    I think she leaves open the possibility that the character did not necessarily have to turn out murderous. The narrator’s mother is an absent and neglectful mother, an on-again off-again prostitute, and she uses her son as her sounding post, filling him with information he cannot handle. Murderous, sociopathic rage seems to be a natural result. There is the hint here that at some point he could have been rescued. So I would suggest that the story is actually about parenting. This man is a terrible parent. He doesn’t once think that there might be some help for either himself or his son. In addition, there is the question of the narrator’s wife as a mother. Is it not possible that she has also become aware of her son’s viewing habits? Or, also, should she be aware? I think that Gaitskill is staking out some conscientious territory here about the responsibilities of parenting.

  17. Jon says:

    Betsy, the thesis that the story is about parenting is very interesting and now that you’ve pointed it out I think that is right. I paid much too little attention to the role of the narrator’s mother and the parallel to the narrator’s performance in parenting.

    Trevor, I’m a lawyer. Pulling a gun on someone like that is either a felony or a high grade misdemeanor in all fifty states. It would also be possession of a deadly weapon in the commission of a felony, which is a substantial add-on in mst states. be One can easily do time for that behavior. Whether the statute of limitations has run is another question, so he may be ok in the eyes of the law, but it is inaccurate to say there is nothing in this story to support an indictment. Anyway, I guess we just better disagree. I think the guy is a threat and that his self absorbed thoughts thoughts are worthless. That he is the well spoken guy next door pursing his creepiness under the radar makes him all the more a threat – that by the way is exactly what Dennis Rader was: municipal code enforcement officer, deacon of his church, community pillar.

    The conversation here has revealed to me some value in the story nonetheless. I can buy that is about parenting and the consequences of abdicating the responsibility that comes with it.

  18. Trevor says:

    Trevor, I’m a lawyer.

    That explains a lot, Jon! I’m a lawyer too — no wonder we’ve kept this up today! And here we are throwing about the Modern Penal Code. I don’t, incidentally, do any criminal work. I’m not convinced there’s much to go on with this guy, though. And even if he were hit in court with the full power of the law for pulling a gun on someone when he was a minor, and even if they threw trespassing in there to boot, surely no one could indict him for the much uglier aspect that is his mind. So I still think there’s a distinction between him and Rader. This man is not a murderer objectively; Rader killed multiple people over a few decades.

    I also have to rear my head in here about the parenting angle. I prefer reading this as a story where the parenting details are just more misdirection.

    At any rate, cheers for indulging me. I’m enjoying the back and forth.

  19. Trevor says:

    Incidentally, if anyone hasn’t read this story and is curious, the link to it is at the top of my post above. You can read it in its entirety on the New Yorker’s webpage.

  20. Betsy says:

    Jon, you ask, “Next, the story does not even pretend to attempt to answer any of those questions. So seeking answers is not the purpose nor the value (“worthwhileness” if you will) of the story.

    So what does the story contribute? What is it About?”

    Trevor replies, “Answering questions, to me, is not the purpose of any good fiction.”

    I would agree with Trevor, here. One of the roles of fiction, from the Odyssey onwards, is to tell a story about reality which is mysterious. The mystery engages us, and it forces us to question it, and in doing so, we recognize that we are also questioning reality.

    Trevor, I stand by my take! But by no means do I think that reading it for the parenting is the “answer”, no more than reading it for ammunition against pop culture is also the answer. The story is problematic, ambiguous, self-centered, maddening, and rather prismatic. The difficult part is to try to take the story as a whole.

  21. Aaron says:

    I’m late to the discussion here — playing catch-up — but I had an even more extreme reaction than Jon’s (in the “Why bother reading this” camp), so I hope you’ll all indulge me. Full write-up here (http://tinyurl.com/5uhntyb), but what it boils down to is this:

    I don’t think Gaitskill knows what she’s talking about. I think she’s just completely making up what *might* run through the mind of such a person, a problem compounded by her narrator not having any direction: why is he speaking? To whom? Raskolnikov, Humbert, these antiheroes had reasons to talk, reasons that pulled us in to their self-justifications and twisted logics. This unnamed, unfleshed character, simply does things, and while I wanted to read “the other place” as being a metaphor for the cold, creeping isolation that aims people toward violence as a means of breaking free (see Columbine), the fact that he *doesn’t* actually commit any of the crimes that he’s fantasizing about seems to suggest otherwise.

    I don’t agree with the comments about the parenting parallel — very different dynamics, and note that the wife has her own “extremes” from the past, ones that make her not at all disturbed by her husband’s un-acted upon fantasies. More so, I’m confused by Gaitskill’s choice to describe the potential 40-year-old victim as belonging to “the other place.” How so? I’m also thrown by the tonal shift in the third-to-last section: “I should’ve gut-shot the bitch.” Bitch? All of a sudden we get that language?

    All of these lingering questions, the fading focus from section to section, the rather vaguely written descriptions of all this supposedly “dark” material, makes me feel like Gaitskill doesn’t know what story she wants to tell. Many of the comments above say that they were scared by the narrator — I wasn’t even remotely disturbed . . . only the implications of the son’s capacity for violence (the less said, the more effective) were hauntingly creepy.

    Help me out here, guys. What am I missing? Or am I just trapped in the other place myself?

  22. Trevor says:

    I have a few responses, Aaron, though I hate to sound like I think people should like this one. That is not how I feel. I especially cannot argue against the fact that you didn’t find the narrator creepy, though I certainly did. I mean, he watched the neighbor girl sleeping at night and had a fetish for violence against women — he gets off on the images . . . so much so that he almost crosses the line and becomes his fantasy. And who’s to say he won’t? Indeed, just allowing oneself to imagine such things is all sorts of disturbing.

    As to your other points, I’m not sure why it is a problem (or how you know) that Gaitskill doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I’m also pretty sure she wouldn’t dispute this point. But why is that a problem? Does it mean she is wrong, that her imagination has failed her and us? Is the story unbelievable? It didn’t come off as naive or uninformed to me. Quite the contrary, actually, which is why it was so chilling.

    I’m also not sure I follow the failings in comparison to Raskolnikov and Humbert Humbert. For one thing, Crime and Punishment is not a first-person narrative, so Raskolnikov himself is not doing the talking, except for when he confesses to Sofia. If it’s that confession that you’re referring to, I can see the link to Humbert Humbert’s confession, and I can see that they have someone to whom they are talking. I can easily accept that the narrator in “The Other Place” is simply relating a story that is partially confessional and partially decpetive, all with the goal of finding some form of excuse or, at least, some sympathy. I’m not sure if part of the problem here is that we don’t know to whom he is speaking, but there are other confessional or declamatory stories that are strung out in the first person where we don’t know whom the narrator is speaking to. Again, to me, that isn’t an obstacle to getting into this story, nor do I consider it a failure on Gaitskill’s part.

    I also didn’t take the “other place” to mean what you suggested it should have meant, “a metaphor for the cold, creeping isolation that aims people toward violence as a means of breaking free.” I took it to be a mental state wherein he could fantasize enacting the crimes he just can’t quite commit in reality, a mental retreat that any schoolboy might enact to imagine he’s the star player on the sports team or that when the bully picked on him he not only stood up to the bully but beat him down and then walked away while the crowd looked in awe. The difference here being that his fantasies show just how disturbed and perverted his mind is and just how frightened those around him should be. To me, the reason the 40 year old woman belonged to the “other place” is because she could believe it existed. Something about her past or her mental state — there’s psychological or physical violence of some form that shows in her eyes — made her fit in his dark fantasies more than in the everyday world.

    Thanks for your comment, Aaron. I enjoyed the story and have enjoyed defending it, for whatever my defense has been worth!

    I feel this is a good place to say, though, that while I really enjoyed this story and felt it was well written, it’s not one I’d go to the mat for. In other words, unlike The Age of Innocence, whether someone likes this story or not, whether someone sees it as strong writing or not, is of no consequence to our literary relationship. Just don’t say you don’t like Edith Wharton!

  23. Aaron says:

    Your explanation about the way in which the 40-year-old belongs to the “other place” helps me out a little, except my impression was not of a psychological or physical violence — rather, it was that she was already dying, painfully (and alone), of cancer.

    My comments on Raskolnikov are mainly that — yes, although it’s not first-person — you get a strong sense of where he’s coming from. Likewise with Humbert, which is. We do not imagine that Nabokov or Dostoyevsky understand what it’s like to be these characters (any more than we think him to be the “madman”) — but we can follow their character’s logic. We trust that these are plausible things. For me, the narrator’s action here, his vagueness when it comes to violence . . . these are not plausible. Were he truly sick, we’d get something more graphic out of him. Instead, he holds back even from describing the graphic fantasies that are already out there, like the torture-porn flick “Captivity.”

    This is where I get on Gaitskill’s case: she sees a poster and she describes it, and assumes that that will do the case of demonstrating a character’s mind. It doesn’t; it perpetuates the commercialism of the dark fantasy, something that’s been popping up more and more in fiction lately. Do we understand the evil albino monk in the Da Vinci Code because he flagellates himself, or do we read that he flagellates himself and somehow put our own depths onto that? We know a little bit about Lisbeth Salander, say, but for the most part, Larsson writes black and white characters, attributing actions to them without clearly connecting them to motivations, histories, or, for that matter, characters. These people could be anyone. This nameless narrator could be anyone, and so he’s nobody: show me the specificity that makes him something more than a vague conceit.

    Yes, stalking a girl — watching her while she sleeps — is creepy. So is pulling a gun on a stranger. But was it creepy when *THIS* guy did it, so calmly, so rationally, so aimlessly? Not really: it didn’t mean anything; there were no stakes. That’s what happens to the present portion of this story, too: they’re fly fishing. Is there something more there? Not really.

  24. Trevor says:

    Whoa whoa whoa! Comparing Gaitskill to Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson? That’s below the belt, man!

    For me, the narrator here became real not because of discreet details but because of the voice. When he describes the nighttime walks, there’s a real love and passion in his voice which carries over when he explains what he’s doing. When he gets agitated in the car, it comes out in how he describes the scene. Why, even the fact that he is not too explicit, to me, says loads about who we’re dealing with: someone who is a part of society, who knows enough about how society works and about what is comfortable and uncomfortable, but who nevertheless is aroused by female violence. His rationality, his calm, his aimlessness: all worked to present a believable picture to me, all the more unsettling because it isn’t expected. In fact, it’s the “other place” that makes him calm and rational, that gives him peace.

    Now, the fly fishing. You’ve got me there. I don’t remember if I ever had a thought on the fly fishing. If I did — if it was anything other than conventional father/son time — it’s slipped my memory and wasn’t very convincing.

  25. I did read this story and, until now, have refrained from commenting. I must admit, however, that Aaron’s assessment has motivated me to break my silence. I agree with him — this is a sub-standard work. And I don’t think comparing it to Brown or Larsson is off-base.

  26. Aaron says:

    I knew I was being harsh, and I’m not judging all of Gaitskill’s work with the comparison, but her literary means feel empty to me when they’re just announced and disconnected from the rest of the story. Details about the Legges’s “wicked-looking elves” are odd, and his childhood of “dumb pranks” are never revisited — his son, for instance, doesn’t seem to share in them. Even his night-walk confession — “I just wanted to sit and watch, to touch other people’s things, to drink in their lives” — is a far cry from the other picture of the narrator that’s painted later on, and if it’s an evolution from the one to the other, then it makes no sense for the father to long for the son to want the former when he’s already moved on to the latter.

    When we narrow the story way down to these moments, their disorganization and lack of clarity become bigger sticking points; the narrator may not need to be specific, that may in fact work for you, but he does need to be somewhat consistent. Otherwise, Gaitskill’s just chronicling things that she thinks are disturbing, which is little more than airing, say, “The Faces of Death.”

    I want to be convinced otherwise, I want to see something more in her story, but when I think about what I can take out of this short, what I’ve learned about even this thinnest slice of humanity, I can’t name a thing.

  27. Trevor says:

    Well, Kevin, I stand corrected! And have just run off to order some Brown and Larsson :) .

  28. Jon says:

    I dunno Aaron, you write: pulling a gun on a stranger was creepy, “But was it creepy when *THIS* guy did it, so calmly, so rationally, so aimlessly? Not really: it didn’t mean anything.”

    Ever look the wrong way down the barrel of a revolver and see the bullet in the chamber? It’s pretty damn creepy. And with a stranger’s finger on the finger, it’ll creep you out for a LONG time.

    I do not agree that Gaitskill does not know what she’s talking about when she renders that scene.

  29. Jon says:

    Sorry. “… stranger’s finger on the trigger” it should have said.

  30. serina says:

    what do you guys think the arguement of this short story was? what point do you think she was trying to get across to the readers?

  31. Trevor says:

    Hi Serina, I’m one who doesn’t think there’s an argument or point here. It’s an exploration. Where does this violence come from? What could we possibly do about it? The answers are not here.

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