“The Other Place,” by Mary Gaitskill
Appeared in the New Yorker on Valentine’s Day, 2011 (read online here); read by Jennifer Egan for the March 3rd, 2014 episode of the New Yorker Fiction Podcast; anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2012, edited by Heidi Pitlor and guest editor Tom Perotta; there’s also a video on Vimeo of a reading by the author
I haven’t written much about Mary Gaitskill. Why haven’t I written more about Mary Gaitskill? I feel like I could be friends with this person.
As Egan and Treisman point out in the podcast, the neat thing here is how the narrator never quite says how much his mother hurts him. When he tells us about her escort work, he seems to believe he’s talking about the “not-normal” part of his childhood—that is, the sleazy, lower-class element. What he’s actually talking about is how, even when his mother had just recovered from a serious illness, even while she was trying to laugh off her embarrassment over a shameful memory, he felt nothing but contempt for her.
To the narrator, this contempt is normal. Another character expresses the same type of contempt (“That’s the kind of lady I’d like to slap in the face”). It’s as though feminine vanity and insecurity have the power to hurt men, to provoke them.
Another thing the narrator never articulates is how the violence of fishing resembles the violence of murder fantasies. That “muscle with eyes and a heart” could be any animal, any person. “I went on about how anything beautiful had to be conquered.” The term “fish-killer” in parentheses. He never seems to ask himself whether teaching his son to fish is a step towards normality or towards the other place.
Until I saw it on the page, I didn’t realize this story had so many section breaks. It’s kind of rambling, but it never feels like it. One particularly striking section break is bridged by the repetition of the word “baby[.]”
The paragraph that transitions to “The first time I took Doug out to fish” is very odd now that I’m looking at it. Like two separate paragraphs jammed together.
The phrase “nine months ago” makes me wonder how the narrator perceives this present time, when he and Doug are bonding over fly fishing and unspoken fantasies. At first I read the ending as the narrator’s commitment to a normal life for his son, a life in which violence would remain a fantasy. But it could just as well be a time of nascent violence, of learning to tie knots and slice open bellies.
Unlike most future serial killers, the narrator pets the cat and lets it be.