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Mary Gaitskill Recommends Saul Bellow
Vol. 8, No. 3 EDITOR’S NOTE
Years ago I had a conversation with a friend comparing John Updike and Saul Bellow. At the time I liked Updike a little better, but she said something on Bellow’s side that nearly changed my mind on the spot. “Updike sees,” she said. “He sees the world and he knows what he is looking at. Bellow looks and he doesn’t always know. Bellow is stunned by the world.” By that she meant that Bellow’s vision is deeper.
I’m not sure that she was right (I’m not sure, for one thing, that Updike is always so knowing), but I’m still thinking about what she said. This blunt and exquisite little beauty, “Something To Remember Me By,” is a small example and counter-example of what she was talking about. The narrator is a worldly old man with a sophisticated eye and a wise-ass sense of humor describing an incident from his boyhood. But for all his wise-assedness, he remains amazed by the force and plenitude of physical life: pocket lint, soiled snowbanks, a tile wall with gaps “stuffed with dirt,” the “salt, acid, dark, sweet odors” of strange pussy. Then there’s social life: the order of family and religion, the chaos of morality, crime, goofiness, love, deception and holy books, some of which hide money, others of which cost 5 cents and come apart in your hands. As his scornful older brother says, this boy “doesn’t understand fuck-all,” and through this boy’s eyes, who would?
The story takes place in depression-era Chicago and it is told almost like a fairy tale: the boy, whose mother is slowly dying, goes on the “journey” of his day at school and work. At its very start he kisses his bed-ridden mother; though he lives in a city, he then encounters hunters, steps over the blood they’ve spilt and enters a park (or wood). Later he enters a strange home to deliver flowers; in the dining room he sees a young girl lying in a coffin. Her frowning mother gestures with her fists. He sees “baked ham with sliced bread” on the drainboard, a “jar of French’s mustard and wooden tongue depressors to spread it;” there’s a dead body, but it’s these daily things that make him say “I saw and I saw and I saw.” Under this mortal enchantment the boy then goes to see his uncle and instead meets another girl, also supine, but naked and very much alive. The boy forgets his mother and is falsely seduced. He is humbled, does service, is punished. There is mercy and knowledge.
Actually punishment comes last, but mercy and knowledge have more power—which would say that my friend was wrong, that Bellow does look and know. Except that the knowledge of the story, which comes from the world of objects and cheap books, plus people who make fun, speechify, cheat and punch hell out of the kid—this knowledge is peculiar; blunt, yet hard to read, right in your face, but off the color spectrum.
“That was when the measured, reassuring, sleep-inducing turntable of days became a whirlpool, a vortex darkening towards the bottom.”
“I myself know the power of nonpathos, in these low, devious days.”
The boy turned old man thinks both these thoughts close on each other; his knowing and his amazed unknowing come together and fall apart again.
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Remember Me By by Saul Bellow Recommended by Mary Gaitskill
WHEN THERE IS TOO MUCH GOING ON, more than you can bear, you may choose to assume that nothing in particular is happening, that your life is going round and round like a turntable. Then one day you are aware that what you took to be a turntable, smooth, flat, and even, was in fact a whirlpool, a vortex. My first knowledge of the hidden work of uneventful days goes back to February 1933. The exact date won’t matter much to you. I like to think, however, that you, my only child, will want to hear about this hidden work as it relates to me. When you were a small boy you were keen on family history. You will quickly understand that I couldn’t tell a child what I am about to tell you now. You don’t talk about deaths and vortices to a kid, not nowadays. In my time my parents didn’t hesitate to speak of death and the dying. What they seldom mentioned was sex. We’ve got it the other way around.
My mother died when I was an adolescent. I’ve often told you that. What I didn’t tell you was that I knew she was dying and didn’t allow myself to think about it—there’s your turntable.
The month was February, as I’ve said, adding that the exact date wouldn’t matter to you. I should confess that I myself avoided fixing it.
Chicago in winter, armored in gray ice, the sky low, the going heavy.
I was a high school senior, an indifferent student, generally unpopular, a background figure in the school. It was only as a high jumper that I performed in public. I had no form at all; a curious last-minute spring or convulsion put me over the bar. But this was what the school turned out to see.
Unwilling to study, I was bookish nevertheless. I was secretive about my family life. The truth is that I didn’t want to talk about my mother. Besides, I had no language as yet for the oddity of my peculiar interests.
But let me get on with that significant day in the early part of February.
It began like any other winter school day in Chicago—grimly ordinary. The temperature a few degrees above zero, botanical frost shapes on the windowpane, the snow swept up in heaps, the ice gritty and the streets, block after block, bound together by the iron of the sky. A breakfast of porridge, toast, and tea. Late as usual, I stopped for a moment to look into my mother’s sickroom. I bent near and said, “It’s Louie, going to school.” She seemed to nod. Her eyelids were brown; the color of her face was much lighter. I hurried off with my books on a strap over my shoulder.
When I came to the boulevard on the edge of the park, two small men rushed out of a doorway with rifles, wheeled around aiming upward, and fired at pigeons near the rooftop.
Several birds fell straight down, and the men scooped up the soft bodies and ran indoors, dark little guys in fluttering white shirts. Depression hunters and their city game. Moments before, the police car had loafed by at ten miles an hour. The men had waited it out.
This had nothing to do with me. I mention it merely because it happened. I stepped around the blood spots and crossed into the park.
“Writing is.... being able to take something whole and fiercely alive that exists inside you in some unknowable combination of thought, feeling, physicality, and spirit, and to then store it like a genie in tense, tiny black symbols on a calm white page. If the wrong reader comes across the words, they will remain just words. But for the right readers, your vision blooms off the page and is absorbed into their minds like smoke, where it will re-form, whole and alive, fully adapted to its new environment.”—Mary Gaitskill
“Today the clerk in the fancy deli next door asked me how I was, and I said "I have deep longings that will never be satisfied." I go in there all the time so I thought it was okay. But she frowned slightly and said "Is it the weather that does it to you?" "No," I said, "it's just my personality.”—Mary Gaitskill
Because They Wanted To Play It As It Lays
Somehow, while I was in New Orleans, I decided to chase Mary Gaitskill’s collection, Because They Wanted To, with Didion’s Play It As It Lays.
Let me tell you something about reading Didion and Gaitskill in tandem while wading through humid heat even New Orleans residents complain about.
Don’t do it.
In heat like that, when you’re used to life in a small office, hunched in front of a computer, you want narratives that wash off you like aloe. Gaitskill and Didion are not that. Their narratives clamp onto you. They chafe.
They’re good. They’re both so good. And maybe reading them in a climate that makes their harshness harsher is how they should be read, but I found myself putting them down and cradling my head, ready for the headache of feeling too much in too small a space with the heat bearing down like aliens.
Their characters lie down and let the worst of them breathe out, intoxicating the room’s air. Their stories stick to the skin like sunburns, smarting for days after. The rawness of it all suffocates. There is no way to put the book down and forget about Maria Wyeth or any of Gaitskill’s characters, whose propensities tend toward veiled honesty, sexual deviancy, and purposeful bruises. They stayed with me in that way the chalk from a pill sticks to your tongue when you don’t swallow it properly.
I tried to explain the experience of reading these two together to my cousin and she said it made her claustrophobic just listening to me. But they’re both so, so good, I insisted. It’s worth it, really, it’s just … Intense.
Last week I went to “Sleep No More.” Early in the performance, one of the witches grabbed me and took me into a pink room, draped with nightgowns, for an individual monologue. She took my mask off and stepped with me into a closet. In the dark, she clutched at my elbows and said, desperate: “We must not go back to Mandalay.” She repeated herself, a crack in her voice: “We must not go back to Mandalay.”
These books had that same feeling. Like: we must not do any of this again, but here, again again again. Wait with me while the scars on my ankles heal, while I wait for the answer I will never get. No, but, please. I can feel their character’s delicate clutch at my wrist and there’s no question. I stay.
After the witch finished her monologue, she gave me my mask back and pushed me further into the closet before disappearing. I had to find my way out by shoving past unfamiliar coats and dresses, surrounded and claustrophobic and hoping I’d find myself back in a familiar corridor so I could start again.