Other Factors by Mary Gaitskill, 1988
The magic trick:
Using one of the characters to incisively criticize the protagonist
In many ways, this is the weakest story in Gaitskill’s otherwise phenomenal debut collection, Bad Behavior. The plot never gets moving, and probably never had any intention of moving. The relationships being parsed over are not particularly unique. The woman at the center of the story doesn’t win the reader’s heart, but instead comes off as brooding and self-absorbed – and not in an interesting way.
All that said, the story still has elements to recommend it, most notably the character of Deana, the protagonist’s girlfriend. We don’t really get to know Deana, so it is not her characteristics that make her memorable. It is what she says.
The most insightful things this story has to say – the concept of aggressive vulnerability – are given to Deana. She’s the one who casts a critical eye at the protagonist. The story meanders and never delivers any meaningful punch. But the conversation in the middle between Connie and Deana is worth the effort. And that’s quite a trick on Gaitskill’s part.
“You have a way, you know, of shoving your vulnerability right into people’s faces. Or something that you call vulnerability, anyway. You sometimes do it immediately upon meeting them. You force people to deal with it.” Deana was speaking excitedly but precisely, her words like clean-cut vanilla-colored chips.
“No, listen to me. Don’t be angry with me for saying this; you don’t do it as much as you did. But you used to do it a lot, and it’s kind of strange to be confronted so aggressively with somebody else’s frailty. Some people will want to protect you, as I did, but some people will want to hurt you. Others will be merely afraid of you, for the obvious reason that it reminds them of their own frailty, which sounds a lot like your friend Alice.”
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