What's Underneath | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Mary Gaitskill is an author who peels the veneer of what's acceptable and exposes the scarred, the overlooked, the harsh realties of what really is. Her fiction is not about princesses, white knights, romance and happily ever after. It is about people who are emotionally isolated, naïve and exploited, even those who dare to be sexually deviant. They are mostly female and they are caught, unsure which way to move or how to change their circumstances.


Gaitskill, who visits Pittsburgh for a Sept. 14 reading, is a woman with many stories to tell. At age 16, during a tumultuous adolescence, she ran away from home and became a stripper. Indeed, Gaitskill remains unafraid of laying herself bare. Her books confront sex in all its glories, problems and perversities. Her characters are desperate to feel, but largely unable to express themselves emotionally. They are violent, self-loathing and cruel, but yearn for any sort of love.


She writes about situations and issues that most people find uncomfortable. While the average person avoids looking at the homeless or street prostitutes, Gaitskill forces readers to not only see the tattered, torn and bleeding, but to listen and possibly even understand. She delves into drug addiction, the darker side of sex, dislocation and rebellion, and underneath it all the fierce need to belong. She's seen what drugs and AIDS can do. But Gaitskill doesn't write about sex and drugs to be absolved. She is merely the storyteller.


Gaitskill is widely known for Bad Behavior, her collection of short stories from whence "Secretary" was taken and adapted into a 2002 film, with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal.


At Gaitskill's Sept. 14 visit, hosted at Garfield's ON gallery by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures and the American Shorts Reading Series, she will read from her fourth and latest book, the critically lauded Veronica. The novel, which was nominated for a 2005 National Book Award, explores the complex friendship between a former model, runaway and party girl named Alison and the older, ailing and eccentric title character. Alison, now older, is afflicted with a fatal case of Hepatitis C. Veronica is humbled by the consequences of her past actions and is trying to reconcile and make sense of it. Throughout their friendship, Alison thought herself superior because of her youth and good looks. Facing her own mortality, she begins to comprehend the gifts Veronica has given her.


Provocative, revealing and unashamed, Gaitskill is a skilled writer. Her portrayals of modern femininity are right on the mark. She is a master at dragging the taboo out into the light for dissection, and she isn't to be missed.

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