Tiny Smiling Daddy by Mary Gaitskill, 1997
The magic trick:
Layering darkness behind the father’s surface conflicts
Surely, Gaitskill is a Joyce Carol Oates fan. There is a sense of evil lurking behind this story’s sentences similar to that in much of Oates’s work.
On the surface, this is a simple story of father-daughter miscommunication. The father has just learned that his daughter has published a story about their relationship in Self magazine. This sends him down a spiral of memories, sadness, fears and insecurities. That alone would probably be enough to sustain an interesting story. But Gaitskill turns that Henry James screw by layering hints of darkness behind those memories.
The reader is left with suggestions of violence and sexual abuse. Perhaps it is nothing. Perhaps all is normal. Perhaps the suggestions never made it beyond the father’s subconscious. Nevertheless, it makes for a disturbing experience for the reader. It also adds depth to the notion of miscommunication between father and daughter. The father can’t even seem to make sense of his own feelings. He can’t even understand – or maybe can’t force himself to confront – the events of his own life. How then could he ever communicate in a healthy way with his daughter?
And that’s quite a trick on Gaitskill’s part.
Then one year she came home for Christmas. She came into the house with her luggage and a shopping bag of gifts for them, and he saw that she was beautiful again. It was a beauty that both offended and titillated his senses. Her short, spiky hair was streaked with purple, her dainty mouth was lipsticked, her nose and ears were pierced with amethyst and dangling silver. Her face had opened in thousands of petals. Her eyes shone with quick perception as she put down her bag, and he knew that she had seen him see her beauty. She moved toward him with fluid hips; she embraced him for the first time in years. He felt her live, lithe body against his, and his heart pulsed a message of blood and love. “Merry Christmas, Daddy,” she said.
Her voice was husky and coarse; it reeked of knowledge and confidence. Her T-shirt said “Chicks With Balls.” She was twenty-two years old.
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