‘Secretary’ by Mary Gaitskill

Secretary by Mary Gaitskill, 1988

The magic trick:

Zapping a dull, normal life routine with a shocking sexual situation

We begin a week of beautiful, dark, twisted fantasies. Not a Kanye West SSMT spinoff. It’s Mary Gaitskill Week here on the website, and, frankly, she makes Kanye look positively well-adjusted.

Today’s feature, “Secretary,” is probably her most famous story, given that it was the basis for a movie. Its combination of the everyday and the highly sexualized is representative of the Gaitskill universe.

This story especially emphasizes the protagonist’s everyday life. Everything feels very normal to the point of being boring. She lives with her parents who argue and eat dinner and watch television and go to sleep. Her sister lives at home too. She’s had the same go-nowhere job for eight years. Our protagonist’s life is stagnant in the extreme.

So, it’s into this setting that the story’s well-known (if you’ve seen the film) workplace sex drama explodes. For the protagonist, it’s shocking and even exciting but ultimately demoralizing and debilitating. And all a very complicated thing for the reader to process. Dark and twisted, for sure.

And that’s quite a trick on Gaitskill’s part.

The selection:

We went to the French bakery on Eight-Mile Road and got cookies called elephant ears. We ate them out of a bag as we drove. I felt so comfortable, I could have driven around in the car all day.

Then we went to a lawyer’s office on Telegraph Road. It was a receding building made of orange brick. There were no other houses or stores around it, just a parking lot and some taut fir trees that looked like they had been brushed. My mother waited for me in the car. She smiled, took out a crossword puzzle and focused her eyes on it, the smile still gripping her face.

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