“Acceptance Journey”
by Mary Gaitskill
from the December 24 & 31, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

Here we are with the final New Yorker story of 2018 (though we’ll get the first of 2019 on New Year’s Eve). I have come to like Mary Gaitskill quite a bit over the last few years since I first read her story “The Other Place” was well received for the most part but led to an interesting conversation in the comments with some who really didn’t like it. I wonder what Gaitskill has in store for us to end 2018!

I haven’t finished the story, but it begins with a fifty-seven-year-old woman named Carol finding some relief in a new town after fleeing her husband and her boyfriend. We get the sense soon that her life has been pretty difficult and out of control for a while, but her new home is temporary. With all of this going on under the surface, she tries to excel in her new job and enjoy the new neighborhood. But, as Alice Munro often shows, the stuff under the surface is terribly real:

The most pacific grasses and meadows of her inner being were subject to sudden sinkholes full of bone and bilious tissue, spilling over with the multifarious faces, the intimate crimes and errors of her life, all pulling her in the opposite direction as she walked forward, saying hi to people and their dogs, mostly middle-aged except for one bent but fast-moving old lady with an alert husky.

However, Munro’s stories usually don’t take as many dark turns as Gaitskill’s. I’m expecting Carol’s life to keep going down in a sickening spiral. I don’t know — maybe it will all turn out for the best.

We’ll see!

Please comment below to let us know how you liked “Acceptance Journey.” I’m looking forward to a fun discussion to end 2018!

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By |2018-12-17T15:36:43-04:00December 17th, 2018|Categories: Mary Gaitskill, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |6 Comments


  1. Shira Lev December 18, 2018 at 6:46 am

    Funny that you mention Munro, cause a lot of this story reminded me of her terrific, eerie story which I forgot the name of, where the grandmother puts her grandkids at risk with this whole Twin Peaks-like thing in the weird house. God, I love that story, yet I always forget its name.
    Anyway, yeah, this being a Gaitskill’s story (which is one of my all-time favorite writers), I also expected Carol’s life to go on a downward spiral, but… well, well, what do you know. I mean, hell, I even thought for a while Carol’s going to do something horrible to Estella.
    I have so much to say about this one, I don’t even know where to begin. It’s incredibly complex and multi layered and I am still not quite sure what to take of it or what to think of it as a whole.
    I will say, though, that I found Gaitskill’s following interview about the story quite puzzling and unsatisfying. It seemed to me like she was having difficulty explaining, even to herself, the connection between the references to torture porn (and what was this whole thing with the naked, starved prostitute in the desert?) and the concept of love, and the story in general.
    All in all, it’s a story I’d -love- to read an active discussion of in here and I hope people will participate.

  2. David December 22, 2018 at 7:54 pm

    Count me as unimpressed. Early in the story there are a number of attempts at humour that either fall flat or just seem like dad jokes. Fortunately they mostly end early on. We also get the bizarre plot detail that Carol has found a job through a casual acquaintance, which sounds like something that would happen in an era long ago, but seems strange now. So it was not looking good as we get to the heart of the matter that Carol has had a recent break up. I have to admit that nothing about this relationship made me feel like I wanted to know more about it, about the guy, or about how the break up was affecting her.
    When we get to the Grinch letters it was obvious before we saw the first one that this was going to plunge us into the cliché territory of Carol revealing something about herself and her feelings about her own situation through the double meanings of the story she tells the girl. Pretty weak stuff there. What she has to say is not so profound that it inspires any deep reflection nor does it seem frankly all that interesting. Eventually the story runs out of steam and ends. The story from a couple of weeks earlier had enough going for it to get me to read it three times. This is one I might barely even remember in a couple of weeks.

  3. Cristin Miller December 23, 2018 at 9:42 pm

    I love that you mention Munro too, because it just happens that looking for an analysis of her story “Open Secrets” brought me to discover this site today, and this discussion. So happy to find a place where people are discussing the New Yorker stories! I’m a long-time Gaitskill fan, and understand why she’s tough for people sometimes. I mean, only in Gaitskill would a story about a 57-year-old woman making a connection with a child contain a tangent about watching torture porn. But she’s unsettling in a way that I really appreciate. I personally was sort of fascinated by the Grinch part of the storyline– because there’s this moment of real fright where I wonder if maybe this main character is actually not a safe person for a child to be talking to, but also maybe she’s just what the child needs. Kind of a beautiful story of a connection between an outsider, struggling from lack of belonging, and someone struggling from the limitations of the structures of belonging that she’s in. “She feels a lot, she thinks a lot.” Lots of ways that this story thematizes belonging, and then forms of belonging that somehow require a denial of self. The church, and the way everyone appeared to be welcomed, but no acceptance journey here, which ends up meaning, no LGBT. And then it’s Gaitskill, so nothing’s cut and dry. There’s a certain indictment of social structures, but the troubling call is also coming from inside the house of the self, itself. Really hard to wrap up in any kind of neat message bow, and yet that lovely last image of the main character wiping away traces of herself in order to make a real connection.

  4. Ken January 1, 2019 at 5:10 pm

    I wouldn’t put this on the level of Joy Williams’ recent story but I did read it twice. I mostly liked this as she is good at creating an interesting story out of relatively quotidian events but with just a hint of the odd–the Grinch letters, the billboard–to give it a bit of flavor. I would criticize one thing though which are either over-use of adjectives or strained metaphors. Examples: “she looked on it and felt dim, seeping gratitude…” I kind of get this but it’s also placing a bit too much on the, obviously and overtly carefully, “well-chosen” adjectives. As for metaphor–“The sky of her psyche had gone Technicolor with hormonal discharge” right after “feeling her body shifting tectonically under her brain.” Another passage which is more a personification that i was bugged by was “a bush unselfishly extending its bright-pink flowers against the wall of a dull-green house, making the drab color into a gorgeous celadon.” Celadon! These things sort of pushed me away but mostly I was pulled in by her flowing, sympathetic, non-judgmental tone and interesting, sympathetic main character.

  5. Sean H February 10, 2019 at 6:43 am

    Finally got around to this one and it’s superb. Gaitskill exhibits such control. Her writing is very deft here and everything feels apropos to the story — tone, character, setting, plot — so refreshing to see a sure-handed authorial proficiency on display. The prose is pellucid, and she obviously knows her characters very well. The scene at the diner between Carol and Dana is so precise and measured, revealing so much in a compact and efficient manner, a real learning experience for any aspiring crafter of fiction.

    Any politics rendered are in service of the story. So often, younger writers are ham-fisted in how they convey the details that Gaitskill manages to provide about race, feminism, or the sitting president. Here, there’s no sloganeering or grandstanding or trying to win political points, there’s just a dutiful writer making sure that her work is original and surprising but without try-hard-ism or calling attention to itself. There is a patience to the story, but it never feels overly long. And Estella is characterized very well and very quickly, as is the husband, Duane.

    Gaitskill mentions the human need for love and tenderness in her interview alongside a mention of Cheever. You can see the master’s influence here. Getting anywhere near Cheever’s level is incredibly difficult for a contemporary short story writer but Gaitskill gives it a good run here.

    When Carol makes like the Troll doll is possessed there is a real and felt moment of subversive Gaitskill glee but she salves it with such an astute and universal observation: “There was a legion of voices and faces in her and around her, cruel and ruthless and loud, talking gigantically and dancing lewdly while between their prancing legs a blind little creature stumbled, squeaking, ‘I want love, I want love!'” Another great detail is the way the pastor at the Baptist church mishears (or immediately forgets, or subtly racially discriminates) Carol’s name as Karen. The ending is touching without being sentimental.

    Kudos to Gatiskill, and to The New Yorker for publishing it.

  6. daniel s. kershaw February 18, 2019 at 9:32 am

    i have trouble getting to sleep. Listening to podcasts or music at bedtime usually helps, but Mary Gaitskill’s reading has me upright and typing at 3am.. Other comments on this forum mention Alice Munro, and I can see why, because Munro’s stories engage me in the same “where-on-earth-is-this going” quest that this story does. I felt compelled to search online to see if there really is an actual Acceptance Journey org or service (there is),and in turn that search led me to this site. My familiarity with Gaitskill’s writing is limited to reading Bad Behaviour around the time it was published. I recognise the same tone (detached, clinical) & thematic elements (masochism, people who are a mystery even to themselves), but as one would expect, The writing here shows the refinement & complexity that 20-odd years of work can bring. Here’s one of a number of details that stuck to me like a burr: Carol gets the mom’s ok to write letters to Dana’s precocious 8 year daughter, who is evidently beginning to suspect that to some degree our public selves are fraudulent. That Dana doesn’t vet the contents of the letter, and the fact that Carol thinks nothing of this, seems weird & unlikely. Later on, in conversation with her sister, Grace tries to get Carol to understand why someone might find this correspondence worrisome, but Carol brushes this off with a mental tally of Grace’s own missteps. This changes my take on Carol; rather than an embodiment of the rootless, big-city girl experiencing small town ennui, Carol’s reading of the world around her, from which she’s clearly alienated, seems warped by some mental disorder more serious than menopause. It makes me think of the way Carol observes people through her isolation, and the assessments she makes: sometimes wild (the fat shirtless form of some dude appears, at a glance though the window of her speeding car, to have a body “radiant with generosity”), often incorrect (her chance encounter with Dana at the diner – who’s expression Carol reads as that of “someone completely trapped” – ends with Dana offering Carol a ride home, an invitation to dinner, and an apology for over-sharing). It’s Carol that’s completely trapped, sleepwalking through life while those “legions” within mess up her marriage, her ability to connect with others, and her sense of self. There’s much more to this story; as someone noted above, it’s probably coiled in Carol’s Grinch persona. Time for a re-read.

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