‘Trying To Be’ by Mary Gaitskill


Trying To Be by Mary Gaitskill, 1988

The magic trick:

Taking the reader inside the seedy world of educated, underemployed 1980s New York bohemia

This is the third story of a mini-trilogy in the middle of Gaitskill’s debut collection, and in many ways it draws from every piece in the entire Bad Behavior bunch. The title itself is a neat summary of the collection. These are characters who are trying to be someone or something. They’re not faking it exactly. They’re just not quite all-the-way sure of what they all-the-way want to be.

It’s only a detail in the story, but Stephanie mentions contemporary writers she hates, which set my mind to wandering. Ooh, I bet Gaitskill loathed Ann Beattie in the mid-80s. Loathed. For the record, I have no reason to think this is actually true. They may be best friends for all I know. I’m only describing my train of thought as I read the story.

Anyway, this thought got me comparing the story to the ones found in Beattie’s frustrating yet oddly addictive That’s Where You’ll Find Me collection. Both writers seem to favor meandering on the page through their own recent life experiences without much direction over structuring an actual plot.

It’s a style that seems to say, ‘Hey, my life is pretty interesting, aren’t you interested?’ In the case of Beattie’s world of rich, entitled, 80s yuppies, the answer to this question is ‘Good Lord no, I’m not interested, I’m repulsed, who could be interested in this?’

But in the case of Gaitskill and her world of hipster prostitutes, the unlikely – and rare – answer is ‘Yeah, actually. Your life is really, really interesting! Keep telling me about it!’ She still may be guilty of self-absorption. But if it’s a self worthy of being absorbed in, is that such a bad thing? And that’s quite a trick on Gaitskill’s part.

The selection:

She had to admit that a large part of the reason she was even trying to get a job was for the approval of people she’d known in Illinois, many of whom were living in New York and thought of her as a hopeless neurotic who couldn’t do much of anything.

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