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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Friday, January 27, 2017

A Mary Gaitslkill story that is powerful but difficult to read

Mary Gaitskill's 1993 story The Girl on the Plane, collected in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, is really difficult to read, not for the style or narrative technique, which are clear and straightforward (although the narrative does encompass a series of flashbacks) but because of the unseemly and demeaning subject matter, in particular the portrayal of a young woman as  grotesquely forward about her sexual desires - specifically, her attraction to the protagonist, he co-worker - a woman who gets blindingly drunk and hurls herself at the young man, who has made clear he's not interested, and who ultimately is the victim of a gang rape. I suspect that if a man had written this story he would have been lambasted (had it been published at all); Gaitskill, however, gets away with this - in her early career she was known as an unconventional writer who'd led a tough life - and w/ good reason. It's actually a good story and powerful indictment of male subjugation of women. The story turns on a dime at the end, redeeming the unsteady beginning. In essence, story is about two strangers on a plane who get into a discussion about their early lives; the man, married, is obviously flirting w/ his seatmate and becoming increasingly drunk (and bold), and toward the end of the flight he holds her hand and "confesses" to her that he'd participated in a gang rape but, he asserts, it wasn't so bad, she didn't mind she was a part of it. That's where the story shifts gears and Gaitskill moves away from her central figure and focuses on the woman's repulsion at the man beside her - jerking her hand away, getting away from him as quickly as possible at the end of the flight - and he never quite gets it. Oddly, in one of the flashbacks he similarly had "confessed" to his wife (before they were married) and her reaction was blasé, even curious - which I guess emboldens him, the jerk. One oddity of the story is that the woman on the plane shared many of the characteristics of the rape victim, as if MG were toying w/the idea of making them one and the same (w/ the guy not recognizing this), but if so she pulled away from that type of weird, strained story structure, a good decision.

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