This July, the New Yorker published Mary Gaitskill’s “This Is Pleasure,” a novella about a #MeToo incident in the publishing world. The story is now out in book form, and its slimness belies its incendiary content.
“This Is Pleasure” is told in alternating voices: we hear from Quin, a disgraced editor who is cleaning out his office after a number of former and current employees have come forward to claim harassment, and Margot, also an editor and his close friend, who is disturbed by the relentless rush to judgment and adamant about Quin’s inherent worth. Quin’s “victims” are not given a voice, although we hear about their complaints.
Quin, a rakishly attractive Brit, impeccably turned out, charming and intelligent, a risk-taker and a boundary pusher, is reminiscent of several eminent literary figures who’ve recently been stripped of their power and position. Gaitskill uncannily captures Quin’s intoxicating mixture of brashness and tenderness, performative wit and flair and haunting vulnerability.
For Quin isn’t a conventional villain or a predator in the Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein mode. He’s flirtatious, seductive, inappropriate. He asks women questions that “seem irrelevant and personal,” he holds their hands at spark-filled lunches. He sends one woman a spanking video after she tells him she’s into BDSM, he playfully spanks another with a spatula when she arrives late for a lunch date; she later claims he “beat and degraded her.” The “microaggressions” add up.
He’d thought he had an understanding with these women, that they were friends, that he was helping them professionally — many got jobs through him. In the wake of their revaluing incidents they’d originally seemed delighted by, he feels confused and betrayed.
Part of the reason Margot resists condemning Quin as an abuser is that she herself was easily able to stop his inappropriate advance. Years earlier, when he reached between her legs at lunch, she put her hand in his face and said no; he backed off immediately, praising the “strength and clarity” of her “no.” They’ve since developed a tender, nourishing friendship that has lasted over 20 years. Quin has been gallant, reliable, and loyal, unfailingly supportive, helpful with a difficult nephew. He’s also been fun and risky: “his silliness, his humor, his dirtiness … rekindled my spirit.”
“Though they don’t often express it freely, some people feel real sympathy for Quin,” Margot tells us. A male co-worker calls his being “completely and utterly crushed” "a travesty,” and exclaims incredulously: “His life is ruined because an ass got pinched?” An older female publicist calls him “generous to a fault ... to twits who didn’t deserve it, poor man,” as younger women cluck disapprovingly.
Quin himself explains that he comes “from a generation that values freedom and honesty above politeness, and [he has] ... acted from those values, sometimes as a provocateur, even a trickster.” He acknowledges that maybe he’s “gone too far sometimes, been too curious, too friendly, at times a little arrogant.”
“A little arrogant” is a monumental understatement to the two women who love Quin, Margot and his “fashionista wife,” Carolina, whom he considers “the sacred figure behind the gaudy tapestry of my public life.”. Her “sadness and helplessness” rend him, and when he reminds her that he has never been sexually unfaithful to her, her retort is lacerating:
“You’re not even a predator,” she said quietly. “Not even. You’re a fool. A pinching, creeping fool. That is what’s unbearable.”
Margot’s husband urges Quin to make a public apology, reminding him that even if “some of them are overreacting or just jumping on a trend … some of them must’ve been genuinely hurt.” Even loyal Margot comes to acknowledge ways that Quin’s insensitivity has made her angry and to see a sadistic element in his relationships. He sniffs out vulnerability with unfailing accuracy, bolstering and flattering those who are insecure, plagued by self-doubt. He justifies his behavior as well-intentioned mentorship, not seeing the narcissism implicit in his serene confidence that he is the ultimate arbiter of these women’s worth and the best Pygmalion to improve them.
That the story is narrated by a “perpetrator” (Quin) and an “apologist” (Margot) makes “This Is Pleasure” a very risky endeavor, and indeed, reviews are cropping up online calling it “victim blaming” and “abuse excusing.” Of course, this reaction reproduces the controversy explored in the book, and this is doubtlessly part of Gaitskill’s complex purposes. But to reduce an enigmatic and ambiguous story to a castigatory epithet is to miss the point of Gaitskill’s fiction.
Gaitskill’s first book was a story collection called “Bad Behavior,” but no one is uncomplicatedly good or unequivocally bad in her work. All her novels, from the extraordinary National Book Award finalist “Veronica” to 2015’s “The Mare,” concern those who abandon or are excluded from conventional society, in part because they exceed its limited categories, flaunt or flout its worn conventions, call into question its black-and-white morality.
For a woman who eventually becomes one of his accusers, Quin once made a gift: a cigarette box containing five tiny scrolls that read: “ugliness or beauty,” “truth or lies,” “courage or fear,” “kindness or cruelty,” “love or ____.” For him as for Gaitskill, no such absolute oppositions exist. The poles inevitably — and enrichingly — implicate one another. In “This Is Pleasure,” one of our greatest living writers brings to the most inflammatory of topics nuance, subtlety, and a capacious humanity that grants mercy even as it never excuses.
THIS IS PLEASURE
By Mary Gaitskill
Pantheon, 96 pp. $18
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’