The Blanket by Mary Gaitskill, 1997
The magic trick:
Turning a control device a character uses into a literary device to comment on that character
Let’s start with one assuredly correct statement: Mary Gaitskill understands pretty much every nuance contained within romantic entanglements. She’s really, really, really knowing.
And what a huge advantage that is for a writer as they set out to capture a romantic entanglement in a story. So much of the pressure is taken off your technique or plot or whatever, because the gift of truth is more than enough to sustain even the worst writing.
OK, so we have that established.
We have our protagonist, Valerie, beginning a relationship with a young man. This is the story of their first month or so together. What is especially cool and original here is the way the couple’s fantasy life bleeds into their reality. You see something similar in Amy Hempel’s “Offertory,” but whereas Hempel uses the blur as a self-conscious literary styling, the fantasies in “The Blanket” feel more genuine.
What does that mean? More genuine?
What I mean is that in “The Blanket,” the role-playing is something that Valerie is using to maintain a sense of control in the relationship. It’s not merely a literary device. It’s a device the character is employing within the story. It’s not for the reader. It’s for the character.
So when the fantasies backfire on her and she starts to lose control, the story is using a literary device to comment on the character’s device. It’s just another level of fiction at work here. Really so well done.
And that’s quite a trick on Gaitskill’s part.
When they finished, they separated and stared at each other, disoriented and almost shamed. “Well,” said Valerie, “and this is only the third week.”
“Holy shit,” said Michael. “You’re right.”
Again he spent the night. He slept curled around her from behind, his forehand butting against her shoulder blades, one hand on her breast. She lay wide awake, withstanding surges of happiness and fear.
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As usual, yes; you’ve perfectly pegged the ‘magic trick’ this author uses. Some selection from SSMT ought to be released in text book form for use in classes: i.e. how to read fiction — the lost art.