‘Because They Wanted To’ by Mary Gaitskill

Because They Wanted To by Mary Gaitskill, 1997

The magic trick:

Creating a blurry shared past for all of the story’s main characters by interweaving different memories with the present-tense plot

I hear the same complaint about short stories a lot – But I got to the end and they totally left me hanging! There was no resolution!

To which I usually say, Oh yeah, that’s the worst. But to which I usually think a. not all short stories do that; b. doesn’t most art do that?; c. isn’t that far more thought-provoking than clean explanation?; and d. isn’t that exactly how real life works?

Anyway… if you have someone like that in your life, do not recommend that they read “Because They Wanted To.” The plot dials up a very serious moral quandary, only to close down the story with zero answer to the inevitable “So what happened next?” question.

Which is great. But maybe not so great to some readers.

I actually found this story disappointingly immature in places compared to the stuff in Gaitskill’s debut collection, Bad Behavior, which is weird because that collection predates this story by nearly a decade. There are several instances of overwrought literary devices and symbolic connections that jump off the page like Gaitskill shoehorned them in during the third-draft’s revision process. Not good.

But the story won me over nonetheless. It bounces between the central story and various memories in the protagonist’s mind – some of them from her childhood, some of them from her more recent young adulthood, nearly all of them harrowing. The story so effectively interweaves them over and over that the reader begins to lose track of which part was memory and which part was in the present tense. All of the characters begin to have this same shared past. They all join the same river, and so by the end, the question of where it’s flowing is irrelevant. And that’s quite a trick on Gaitskill’s part.

The selection:

“I’m cutting his head off! I’m cutting his head off!” yelled Andy.

“No!” Eric’s voice had a shrill, stubborn push.

Swiftly, Elise crossed the room. “Don’t cut off his head!” she said.

There was a burst of silence. Elise felt the boys shrink deeper into their privacy. Stiffly, they moved their toys. She felt embarrassed. She thought of saying, “Be nice to Eric,” but she was too embarrassed. She stood over them, feeling she couldn’t move until someone else happened.

“What are you playing?” she asked.

Andy looked up. “The turtle is trying to cut off the mermaid’s friend’s head and Jago is coming to help,” he explained patiently.

“Oh.” She relaxed. They relaxed. She stood there a minute in the new atmosphere.

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