Romantic Weekend by Mary Gaitskill, 1988
The magic trick:
Setting up a plot that is as much a logic puzzle as it is a story
Even by Mary Gaitskill’s high standard for shocking bedroom behavior this one is a tough read. Not because it isn’t good. It’s an endlessly fascinating story. It’s just difficult in the way it wears down your defenses until S&M mentions feel casual.
Which really says something about the writing.
Even if S&M is your comfort zone, I can’t imagine you feeling comfortable while reading this. Nothing ever rests in a predictable place long enough for you to settle in.
The man in the story is awful. We can agree on this. He is looking for a new victim. Victim of what, we probably can’t agree. Probably he doesn’t even know. And really, that’s the story’s key trick. His manipulation fantasies never totally make sense. The woman in the story isn’t as vulnerable maybe as he’d like? But it’s not like she is a dominant force either.
The story never lets their relationship become so black and white. It’s just a mess. A giant, relentlessly discomfiting mess.
Gaitskill could’ve relied only on the shock value of the man’s abuse fantasies to make the reader uncomfortable. But that would’ve been too easy. It also would’ve given the man in the story far too much credit for being clever (he is actually rather dim).
This story is far more confusing than simple shock value – and all the more unsettling. And that’s quite a trick on Gaitskill’s part.
He hailed a cab and directed the driver to the airport. He looked at her sitting beside him. “This is going to be a disaster,” he said. “I’ll probably wind up leaving you there and coming back alone.”
“I hope not,” she said. “I don’t have any money. If you left me there, I wouldn’t be able to get back by myself.”
“That’s too bad. Because I might.” He watched her face for a reaction. It showed discomfort and excitement and something that he could only qualify as foolishness, as if she had just dropped a tray full of glasses in public. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t do that,” he said. “But I like the idea that I could.”
“So do I.” She was terribly distressed. She wanted to throw her arms around him.
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