The first Modernism course I took in college was really a class on Freud. We read case studies, lectures, and Civilization and Its Discontents before we picked up any Joyce or Faulkner. The well-worn argument the professor was making with such a syllabus was that the exploding popularity of psychoanalysis in the 1890s was a necessary precondition for the precedence interiority took in the literature of the next century. Freud created a pattern for how minds functioned; Modernism was a way of filling in the lines.
Fair enough. But however dependent Woolf and her clique were on Freud in developing their characters, the trappings of his method— your talking cures, your oedipal urges, your oral fixations— almost never appear in the work itself. That disinclination to refer directly to Freud allowed those writers to evoke minds that felt plucked from life, not a diagnostic textbook. Flash forward a few generations of writers being reared on Freud’s centrality to Modern letters, though, and you end up with a book like Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin, where the characters aren’t so much people as analysands, prostrate on the couch and rambling on as the reader sits nearby, scribbling away with a sharp No. 2 pencil.
First released in 1991, Two Girls, Fat and Thin was Gaitskill’s first novel. In it, an aspiring reporter named Justine Shade (thin) interviews the eccentric Dorothy Never (fat) for an article on Definitism, a counter-cultural movement modeled off Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. The interview begins with Dorothy’s disclosure that she became involved with Definitism because it provided an escape from her father, who had sexually abused her starting at the age of 14. Justine responds by admitting she too was molested, in her case by a friend of the family. “It didn’t happen that often though,” she demures, “I know that’s not as awful as with your father because” “Stop,” Dorothy interrupts. “Don’t deny your own experience. It’s just not the kind of thing you can quantify. Any therapist will tell you that.”
The women’s shared trauma acknowledged, Justine presses on with her interview. Turning the conversation to the Atlas Shrugged-style novels of Definitism’s founder, Anna Granite, Justine asks, “Do you see a contradiction in the sexual behavior of her characters… The pattern of dominance and submission that she says is, in other spheres, irrational?” Dorothy, ever the true believer, resolutely does not:
Look, I’m a sex abuse victim and so are you, and you ought to be able to understand… A masochist is somebody like my mother who was demeaned by her subservience to a cruel, dishonest, contemptible man. When the women of Granite’s books submit, they do it out of strength, out of choice, as a gift. That’s the difference between masochism and love, and if you don’t see that, then you’re crazy.
As the professionals say, there’s a lot to unpack there. But from a writerly perspective, what’s notable is that rather than a reason to connect, Gaitskill has restyled Dorothy and Justine’s shared trauma as a wedge of conflict between them.
The invocations of psychoanalysis throughout the interview may not be subtle, but they are effective: Two women who the reader feels should be drawing closer are instead being pulled apart. The only culprit? Their damaged psychology. All of which is to say: the novel is working. Forty pages in and we’re reaching exit velocity. Here are two characters with an already unique, perplexing relationship. The reader wants to see what happens, sure, but more crucially, he wants to understand how each woman came to be.
Gaitskill is happy to oblige. Her method is to jerk the reader back to each woman’s childhood and write chapter after chapter detailing everything from their adolescence to their respective arrivals into adulthood. Nearly half the book is occupied this way, and any reader who had hoped to learn about each woman’s origins will be so thoroughly bludgeoned with backstory by the time he makes it back to the book’s present he may never wish to read in the past tense again.
The choice to detail the cruel facts of Dorothy and Justine’s abuse is understandable; Gaitskill’s need to spell out a plausible antecedent for each and every one of their characteristics is not. Dorothy’s fatness can be traced to her habit of guzzling Hershey’s syrup and Reddi Wip as kid, while Justine’s kink for BDSM is chalked up to a neighborhood boy pretending to brand her, just like Olive Oyl had been in a cartoon. These disclosures neatly dispel the sense of mystery each character carried in the opening pages, creating the impression that their contradictions and preoccupations can be explained through the untangling of a complex chain of causes and effects.
Where those chains lead once we’ve (finally) returned to the book’s present, of course, is to a rapprochement between the two seemingly opposite women. Of course, even the insecurity that makes room for such a friendship is traced back to their childhoods: The fat girl was bullied in school, and so she distrusts any future attempts to befriend her. The thin girl was the bully in school, but her problems are no less dire, as now she resists the vulnerability that might lead to real friendship.
Just as a tightly plotted book that shuttles the reader from one event to the next can leave her feeling more like a spectator than an active participant in the story, airtight characters whose every quality is accounted for leave the reader without any dark corners to illuminate with her own experience. At 13, Dorothy journals, “I fear my father’s anger, but I fear my mother’s love;” Justine, after being taken to see a psychologist named Dr. Venus (!) by her parents, dreams of him watching her have sex in his office. Every step of the way, the two women’s psychology is understood in its totality. If the reader can indeed be thought of as an analyst, reading Two Girls, Fat and Thin is akin to glancing down at your notepad during a session with a patient and realizing all the notes have already been written.
The distance created between the reader and Gaitskill’s characters by her moment-by-moment psychoanalyzing not only makes Dorothy and Justine’s relationship difficult to invest in, it more importantly undercuts the central ideas of the book. On any given page, Gaitskill is thinking through the social interactions that persuade women to change their bodies, or else trying to understand how sex can be both a reprieve from trauma and its trigger. But in tying those themes so firmly to these two characters’ individual psychosis, she narrows what should be an indictment of the entire culture into a joint case study that can be filled away with all the rest. One fat, one thin, the reader thinks, studying the women’s conversational tics and unconventional habits like she’s prodding a pair of vivisected frogs, and neither one at all like me.
Since the last K Paoletter, I wrote about The Earth Dies Streaming, the first collection from n+1’s film critic, A.S. Hamrah, for Guernica, and reviewed the Museum of Fine Art, Boston’s exhibition “Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic,” for The Baffler. If you care at all about criticism I cannot recommend Hamrah’s book highly enough— nobody gets how living digitally influences the experience of culture quite like Hamrah. And if you care at all about fine art, please, please, do not go see Pooh. As I argue in the piece, these sort of insular novelty shows subvert the entire purpose of an encyclopedic museum: providing a space for novel connections across time, culture, and medium.
A little late to the game on the whole reflecting-on-the-past-year thing, but here’s a VIDA Count-style demographic breakdown of the books I reviewed in 2018 (if you’re interested, here’s 2016 and 2017): Overall, I reviewed books by 12 men, 11 women, and one person who is gender nonconforming (that author was also the only openly Queer author I reviewed last year). Nine authors were from North America, and of those, five were white, two Asian American, and two Hispanic or Latinx. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, I reviewed five authors from Asia, four from South America, three from Africa, two from Europe, and one from the Caribbean. Though I’m glad I read pretty widely in general last year, I’m disappointed in myself for not reviewing any black or Native American/American Indian authors, and fixing that, along with seeking out more openly Queer writers, are my big priorities as a critic going into 2019.