“Something Better Than This,” by Mary Gaitskill

The short story I have chosen for the March edition of the English Reading Circle, Mary Gaitskill’s “Something Better Than This,” is not an easy story. Its colloquial, conversational language has surely kept you close to the dictionary – or to the computer screen. In any case, I hope your linguistic frustrations have not kept you from enjoying the first story Gaitskill published. I must confess that I selected this piece mainly on the criterion of my own literary tastes (I find her writing highly intriguing), and because its re-publication in Fictionaut gives us the opportunity to reflect on another proposal of many literary magazines: in order to bring non-circulating or unpublished work by known authors to a wider readership, they publish or re-publish these texts. Thus Gaitskill’s regular readers are no doubt delighted to come across “Something Better Than This”, but it can also serve as an excellent introduction to her work, or even as an isolated story to discuss – as is our case.

Gaitskill’s work, as I’m sure you must have gathered after reading the text, is immensely psychological. Both the characters and the narrator are unusually perceptive, or at least trying to be, lending a certain depth to a generally uncomplicated structure. Her stories are also darker, more purgatorial than most. The themes addressed are quite common, as surely everyone can identify with some feeling or reaction in the story, but the aesthetic and the situations unique to Gaitskill’s writing can be disturbing. For instance, the film “Secretary” is based on one of her short stories, and explores the intricacies of both love and sadomasochism.

So, that said, what is disturbing to us about “Something Better Than This”? I’d like this to be the question you really think about in preparation for our meeting of the Reading Circle – if I may be so bold as to outright ask for such a thing. I think we can begin to formulate an answer by looking at the scene of the story as Gaitskill sets it. These initial words are not simply colloquial, hence the confusion they probably produced as you read the story, but conjure up a whole atmosphere of negative connotations. Even before the reader is introduced to Susan, Yonge Street in Toronto seems like a dreadful place to be on Saturday morning. The reader could very easily replace the “she” with “I”: “Surely she was made for something better than this! At least something better than clobbering down to this humming, clicking neon nuthouse of a street.” Susan, who is the story in a sense, is equally as incapable of capturing the reader’s sympathy. Her contempt of most everything and everyone is clearly the opposite of charming: immediately upon appearing on Yonge street, she (and/or the narrative voice?) refers to a group of teenagers as “those pimple-mouthed forms of low-life clinging around Mr. Submarine like fungus.” These hyphenated bursts of anger can be found throughout the story. Most of the information the reader receives about Susan can best be taken from her observations, and since the story is mainly that, let’s not leave all the responsibility on our participant in charge of reporting to the group on characters.

What keeps the reader engaged, then? Why do we continue to read, despite the unpleasant setting and embittered central character? I have a double suspicion. For me, at least, the power of the language Gaitskill commands is a major incentive to read on. The other element, as least in Susan’s case, is the promise of redemption. “Something better than this! Susan has been waiting for something better than this for years now. She hasn’t a clue as to what this better destiny might be, although she can picture herself writing caustic bestsellers, or hosting talk shows, or something, you know. But this will have to happen later because now she has this stuff to sell.” Susan is not redeemed in the end. Or is she? What about the reader? How do you feel after reading “Something Better Than This”? How are we supposed to feel?

I look forward to you hearing your thoughts at our meeting on Tuesday. I hope you’ve enjoyed this month’s story – or at least found it stimulating.

“You Remember the Planes,” by Paul Auster

The reading that I have selected for the month of February, “You Remember the Planes,” is rather different from the ones we have seen in past sessions – different in that it is not a “short story” in the traditional sense. And yet it certainly has something that resembles a narrative. Some of those traditional literary critics (who adhere to the ‘traditional sense’ I mention above) would undoubtedly consume pages upon pages in an attempt to classify and define it according to certain ‘genres’ whose nuanced definitions are constantly under revision anyway. What seems to be clear in our case is that the author of this piece, Paul Auster, has produced a short literary-essay-memoir for the literary magazine Granta and its readers, but whatever name we give to this particular type of writing is ultimately not very important. The answer to this question of genre is not what I think we should be looking for here. Rather, I think it would be an interesting idea to look at it as if mirrored in what it is not: a piece of short fiction, similar to those we have discussed in recent months. What do we see?

As you read, I encourage you to reflect on the following points:

  • “Planes” certainly shares a number of qualities with the ‘short story’ as we know it. What are they? What qualities does it not share?
  • The narrative voice particularly intriguing. What effect does the use of a second-person ‘you’ have on the workings of the text, and in turn, what effect does the text have on the reader?
  • Although there is no resolution to the conflict, the text finally acquires some sense of coherence and conclusion at the very end, with Auster’s flowery, Joyce-like revelation. Memory, however, has no such conclusion. Why would an author, particularly in a text such as this one, want to structure a memory like fiction? Is it an effective maneuver?
  • I always ask my students to reflect on that cluster-question “What is the author trying to transmit, how, and to whom?” rather than plunge into a discussion of biography – a moot point in the case of the autobiographical text in question. What do you know about Granta? This is also a great moment to reflect on the general theme of this year’s Reading Circle.

I look forward to seeing you all on Tuesday and hearing your thoughts. Till then, happy reading.