IN THE LAST few weeks, the Internet spat out two works I didn’t know I was waiting for.
The first was Mary Gaitskill’s novella, “This is Pleasure,” published in The New Yorker, a work of fiction about an influential book editor named Quinlan M. Saunders whose career is toppled by a chorus of accusers in his workplace. The second was Aziz Ansari’s Netflix comedy special, “Right Now,” a comeback show for a performer whose reputation was ruptured by a sexual misconduct allegation last year.
Both of them could be described as #MeToo narratives, works that react, in some way, to a movement that has reconfigured public conversation about gender and power. Crucially, though, neither of these stories is about explosive revelations; the plots don’t culminate in the raising of a hand to say, “me, too.” The hands have already been raised. And the subjects don’t exactly deny the claims against them. So the gray, foggy feeling that follows isn’t confusion — did he or didn’t he? — but conflicted certainty: We know he did, so how should we feel about it?
Intentionally or not — it seems purposeful for Gaitskill, less so for Ansari — these #MeToo stories engage our ambivalence. Not the incendiary will-#MeToo-go-too-far skepticism, of which there has been plenty, but something more complex. These works ask how we handle our sympathy for men who have done wrong. They linger in the surprising, conflicting feelings that trail after headline-worthy outrage. They make the argument for ambivalence as a fundamental part of the broader #MeToo story.
The fictional harasser in Gaitskill’s story, Quin, doesn’t exactly campaign for our sympathies. The story is rendered by alternating narrators: Quin, whose penchant for “play” becomes his downfall in the publishing world, and an old friend named Margot Berland, whose fondness for Quin weighs against her disgust at some of his actions. It’s a twist on the he-said-she-said (or, rather, he-said-she-said-she-said-she-said) mode of storytelling that has dominated these two years of revelations. The competing voices aren’t those of the accuser and the accused, but the accused and an uncertain ally. We observe Quin as a treasured friend, a workplace creep, and a weirdo who oscillates between clueless and willfully oblivious.
It’s fascinating and a little disturbing to traverse Quin’s mind, to see how he justifies his own manipulative behaviors. “I believe that these e-mails are my best defense, even when they are a tiny bit sexy,” he says of his correspondence with the younger women he employs. “Because they show mutuality, pleasure, even gratitude — friendship.”
But the more interesting reckoning is happening to Margot, who eventually begins to understand her own place in Quin’s story. “I don’t know any other man as comical and strangely lewd,” she thinks to herself, as a colleague skewers Quin and the women who defend him. “His dirtiness rekindled my spirit.”
Margot struggles with the accusations against her friend — she finds some of them petty and unfair to bring up so many years later — but the struggle is rooted in her knowledge that they’re credible. “You treat people like entertainment,” she tells Quin. “You delectate pain.”
People like Margot are unlikely to be prominent characters in the real-life #MeToo stories. Who would go on record and risk professional standing defending a “strangely lewd” friend? But Gaitskill’s storytelling suggests there are Margots everywhere, that the people sitting quietly on the sidelines are almost as crucial to the story as the accusers and accused.
Quin never really apologizes to his accusers, but he generously pardons himself. He publishes a well-reviewed book. There’s little question that he’ll bounce back from his firing, and the story’s loose ends are left with Margot.
The real-life allegation against Ansari was a bit more complicated than the fictional accusations in the Gaitskill story. A website called babe.net published a lurid account of one woman’s date with Ansari, in which the comedian coerced her into unwanted sexual acts despite her verbal and nonverbal demurrals. The article was written in a bizarrely conversational tone — a signature of babe.net’s editorial style — and excessively detailed the sexual encounter. Though Ansari’s accuser, identified by the pseudonym “Grace,” described the incident as sexual assault, some commenters raised doubts about whether Ansari was guilty of more than just boorish behavior.
In public statements after the article dropped, Ansari didn’t deny the events reported in the story. Rather, he claimed that he didn’t realize his actions seemed coercive. “It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned,” he said.
So in his first major performance since the accusation, Ansari is forceful about pushing his narrative toward a redemption arc, and he does so with limited success. He emerges onstage to “Pale Blue Eyes,” the rapturous applause muted beneath the Velvet Underground’s melancholy lyrics. The camera is right in his face; instead of flattering, the spotlight scrutinizes: He’s willing to be in the hot seat, at least at the beginning. Ansari vaguely addresses “that whole thing.” He says, “I just feel terrible that this person felt this way.”
But “that whole thing” is more of a housekeeping item than a guiding principle of the set. “It’s important to me that you know how I feel about that whole thing before we share this night together,” Ansari says to applause. Then he breaks out into his signature wide-eyed grin: “Well, that was pretty intense!” And now everything is supposed to go back to how it was.
The set is a little weird, given the opening remarks; we’re in the passenger seat as Ansari riffs on “woke” culture and the stringency of “2019 standards” for behavior. Much of the performance deals with the public adjudication of beloved cultural figures who behave badly. He imagines how the media would have covered 9/11 if, in 1999, Osama bin Laden had released “an incredible jazz album.” The set is clumsy in some moments, but enjoyable and convincing in others.
Ansari engages his audience substantially throughout the show, dragging bashful viewers into his jokes. The camera frequently turns to the crowd, documenting the glee of the people watching the disgraced comedian’s comeback. I couldn’t help but wonder how the people in the theater felt about “that whole thing,” whether they knew that they’d be characters — not just spectators — in a sexual misconduct redemption story.
“Right Now” ends with an emotional explanation of its own title. With his voice raised barely above a whisper, Ansari thanks his audience. Their attention is so meaningful, he says, “because I saw the world where I don’t get to do this again.” He shares his new approach to life: treasuring “the moment we’re in and the people we’re with.”
“This is our moment,” he says, claiming all of us as his allies. “Right?”
At that point, the spell dissipated for me. Was it “our” moment? Was I trying to be part of Ansari’s moment? And hold on: Shouldn’t his revised outlook on life involve being more thoughtful, rather than simply relishing “the moment?”
In a desperate attempt to regain control of his story, Ansari accidentally stumbles into the effect Gaitskill lays out so meticulously through Margot’s perspective: the discordant mixture of admiration, pity, and disgust.
The unintended revelation of “Right Now” is that all of this is “our moment.” That no one is ever really just an observer, that even if we hesitate to loudly condemn or forgive the accused, we are all characters in this story and always have been.