What Can We Steal From Mary Gaitskill’s “The Other Place”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Other Place,” short story
Author: Mary Gaitskill
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its debut in the February 7, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.  Tom Perrotta and Heidi Pitlor subsequently chose the story for Best American Short Stories 2012.  You can find the story here.

Bonuses:  Very cool.  Here is an interview in which Ms. Gaitskill discusses her story.  Here is an interesting and review and discussion of the story.  Writer Karen Carlson had this to say about the work.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Verisimilitude

Discussion:
“The Other Place” is definitely a punch-in-the-gut story.  The first-person narrator has a number of problems, the greatest of which is probably the unhealthy way in which violence blends with eroticism in his psyche.  His son Doug goes to “the other place,” too; the narrator is both scared for his son and unable to control his poisoned mind.  Ms. Gaitskill unspools the story in an interesting manner; detail upon detail is layered in the first several pages.  Not much “happens,” but Ms. Gaitskill offers a number of vignettes from the narrator’s life.  His mother worked as a high-class prostitute before she was born, he has always had an unhealthy association between sex and violence, he has hitchhiked in the past and fantasized about killing the women who picked him up.  In the very potent final scene, the narrator decides to hitchhike again.  He is picked up by a woman.  Before long, he pulls out a gun and the two argue; he doesn’t want to kill the woman in public, but she is not going to give up too easily and will not beg.  He realizes that her hair is really a wig, leading to the decisive moment!  Will he shoot a woman who is going through chemotherapy?  Will he run away?  I don’t want to give away anything.  Read the story and find out what happens for yourself.

Ms. Gaitskill’s priorities are in the right place.  The narrator judges himself, and Ms. Gaitskill allows him to express his thoughts in an honest manner, no matter how unpleasant they are.  The author pointed out that she was inspired to write the story based upon her own fears of violence.  It would have been easy for her to make her narrator a stereotypical crazy psychopath, but Ms. Gaitskill makes the better and harder choice to delve deeply into the psychology of the man.  The narrator has plenty of redeeming qualities.  He seems to have been fairly open with his wife about his proclivities and he is concerned for his son and he seems to be a fairly decent father.  He suffered psychological trauma in his childhood and knows that he has problems, even if he doesn’t know how to “cure” himself.  Ms. Gaitskill allows us to see the narrator as a vulnerable human being at the same time she is pointing out his unpleasant actions.  Aren’t you more interested in a hero or a villain with real pathos?  No one is all good or all bad, including the kind of guy who wants to kill random people.

Is it easy to read about a man who confesses to getting erections when he is preparing to do violence against women?  No.  And that’s the point.  While there are real people who could fit into “The Other Place,” the story is a work of fiction.  Ms. Gaitskill’s story illuminates one of the inherent contradictions in the composition of fiction.  We all strive for verisimilitude in our work and try to make our characters and situations as realistic as possible.  On the other hand, the reader will always know that the story just isn’t real and that, as unpleasant as the narrator is, he doesn’t exist.  It’s all a matter of degrees of reality, I suppose.

Ordinarily, I think I would be turned off by a story whose dramatic thread isn’t exactly as thick as a Brooklyn Bridge cable.  How did Ms. Gaitskill keep me interested?  She sprinkled in compelling moments of the dramatic present.  I love the visceral description of the stupid pranks the narrator pulled when he was young.  I love being there when the narrator’s mother laughed off her sickbed confession of prostitution: “Way to go, Marcy!  On your deathbed tell your son you’re a whore and then don’t die!”  Even if your story isn’t going to have a traditional narrative thread, you may still want to include elements of traditional narrative to give your reader something to hold onto.

What Should We Steal?

  • Allow your characters to be vulnerable and honest.  Even Hannibal Lecter is vulnerable at times.  It may be hard to get over our antipathy for folks who kill and eat other people, but compelling drama occurs between people, not between stereotypes or cartoonish monsters.
  • Understand that your reader is aware of their safety net.  How close can you get to transport your reader from their easy chair into your story?
  • Fold bits of narrative into stories whose structure may be a little slack.  Your primary desire may be to offer the reader a look at a person’s extreme psychology, but that desire must be balanced in some way with the need for narrative.

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