This is Pleasure
July 9, 2019 4:53 PM   Subscribe

Quin believed that he could perceive people’s most essential nature just by looking at them; he also believed that, in the same way, he could know what they most wanted to hear or, rather, what they would most respond to. A creeping psychological horrorerotica take on the Sad Boner Confessional, This is Pleasure by Mary Gaitskill is a read.
posted by fluttering hellfire (57 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have never clicked a link harder in my life
posted by schadenfrau at 4:56 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Fantastic. The great pleasure I took in reading this, especially the Quin pieces, didn’t shake my view of the good the Me Too movement has done. But I enjoyed dwelling in some of the contradiction and confusion of it, and Gaitskill was deft at weaving in Quin’s denial and deflection. What do you do with this sort of self-aware large-scale manipulator? One of the keys to this and stories like this...if it wasn’t about sexual manipulation and boundary-crossing, why didn’t he do it to men? I really identified with Sharona.
posted by sallybrown at 5:12 PM on July 9 [6 favorites]


Jesus. For anybody on the fence about reading this let me lend it my whole hearted endorsement. That was really, really something. I wish I had something more intelligent to say, but I just feel gently but completely bowled over by it.
posted by saladin at 6:16 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


I have met the 25-year-old version of this man. I swear he's gonna start a cult someday.
posted by airmail at 6:42 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I haven't read the story yet, because I'm at my parents' house, and they get the New Yorker in print, and I was like, well this is convenient, a new Mary Gaitskill story deserves to be read on paper, and I ran and got the July 8 issue, which is actually, in print, the July 8-15 issue, and this story is not in there.

I don't care if it's long. If you're the New Yorker, and you have a new Mary Gaitskill story, and you're not running it in the print magazine, what are you even doing.

When J.D. Salinger released his last Seymour Glass story it was 75 pages long and the New Yorker was just like, fine, that's the whole issue, just the masthead and Talk of the Town and then Seymour Glass the rest of the way.

And like I said I haven't read this story but I am 99% sure it's gonna be better than the last Seymour Glass story.
posted by escabeche at 6:51 PM on July 9 [9 favorites]


Wow. Just...wow. I'm going to thinking about this for days, weeks.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:03 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


The New Yorker's companion interview with Gaitskill is worth reading as well. I was somewhat surprised by this exchange:

Some people will see this story as a defense of a serial harrasser; some will see it as a dismissal of women’s abuse accusations. I know you intend neither of those things; the portraits here are much more nuanced. But do you worry about readers’ responses or potential misreadings of the story?

Actually, it is a defense of the male character, to some extent. He’s someone who, for all his life, has acted in a way that’s now called “harassment,” and not only was it tolerated but he did very well, is a great success, socially and professionally. So why would he realize how offensive his behavior now seems to many people? I don’t intend the story as an exoneration; I don’t see this character as innocent or completely harmless. But, really, who is? Quin is flawed, but he’s essentially a good man who is being punished beyond the scope of his “sins.” The women in the story have the right to express anger at him. If his employer feels it necessary to fire him because he’s become a liability, that is the employer’s right, too. But to behave as if he were a monster, equivalent to a rapist, and to circulate petitions threatening to boycott anyone who would dare to hire him, to create a situation where he can’t work—that is, to me, absurd and even cruel. Especially given the real, powerful monstrousness that is upon us right now, about which there is nothing subtle or sublimated, and which we cannot stop with words or hand gestures.
posted by The Minotaur at 7:43 PM on July 9 [7 favorites]


I am really wondering if “Margot” is a conscious reference to Cat Lady.
posted by fast ein Maedchen at 8:09 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


For all his protestations, Quin doesn't see women as peers; hence, he is limited in how he can interact with them, and I'm not sure he can understand they're autonomous and capable of living without him in their life once he has entered it. I do not believe he respects them, not truly. Quin is a narcissist, perhaps low-key, but his narrative is entirely about himself--he is incapable of empathy, it seems to me, even as he occasionally empowers others. That empowerment is ultimately shallow, all in service to his conceit about himself.

Which isn't to say that interacting with what amounts to a manic pixie trickster god might be something the women he encounters crave or value, even value highly, nor that gestures or favors he makes might not make profound differences in their lives; favors from the haves often do, to the have-nots. Ultimately all of the power in that type of relationship belongs to the trickster, making it unsatisfying and frustrating for many, I imagine.

The advice that Margot gives to Quin, (paraphrasing) "women are like horses, wanting to be led, but respected" may be the bleakest thing I've read in years, presented as it is by the character as a simple truth.
posted by maxwelton at 8:25 PM on July 9 [17 favorites]


(Of course, the Quin's of the world probably seem magical [before they aren't], compared to the rest of us men, who, as a group, in our society, at this time, might just squeak out of the "troglodyte" category to the women who have to interact with us day to day.)
posted by maxwelton at 8:33 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


It's interesting that she disclaims that Quin is not a monster, when he is clearly an emotional vampire. She was very careful to write a horrible man who is ruining his wife and his daughter, yet says "Well he's not all bad and he doesn't deserve to lose his source of blood just because he's a bloodsucker!"
posted by muddgirl at 8:37 PM on July 9 [24 favorites]


"But to behave as if he were a monster, equivalent to a rapist, and to circulate petitions threatening to boycott anyone who would dare to hire him, to create a situation where he can’t work—that is, to me, absurd and even cruel. Especially given the real, powerful monstrousness that is upon us right now, about which there is nothing subtle or sublimated, and which we cannot stop with words or hand gestures."

I'm ambivalent on the intentionalist fallacy and so her words carry some weight with me, but nevertheless this isn't at all how I read Quin.

I think there's a huge number of clues in Margot's account. It's clear that she has always been bothered by Quin, more than she's wanted to admit, and that what's wrong with Quin -- because I think there's something wrong with him -- is not just how his relationships with his women "friends" have all included a sexual component, but that the predatory nature of the sexual stuff is just an extension of a fairly comprehensive predation. And while this predation could be gender and age neutral, it certainly is not: these are with few exceptions younger women. I do think that if Quin's structural privilege accommodated it, he'd happily treat all people in this manner -- but it's so aggressively instrumentalizing and manipulative that he sort of requires it to already be normalized socially with regard to women, as it is with patriarchy, to get away with what would otherwise be transparently outrageous boundary violations.

Put another way, let's go to the brass tacks truth that rape is about violence, not sex. It's violence expressed via sex in some respect, but it's the brutal enactment of power and disempowerment that is its heart. So, too, I think with sexual harrasment, which I think is just another variety of sexual violence. Quin's abuse often involves sex because that's the context that the patriarchy has created for him. But, at his core, his psychology is deeply pathological, he toys with people and believes that to be the precise equivalent to caring for them. I don't feel confident that he actually recognizes other people's autonomy. And I guess I should specify "women", because in this account it's exclusively women...it's revealing how little other men seem to exist in his world. By design. He may well see other men as people and thus he's threatened by them. Women, on the other hand, he can "tease". He doesn't like women, he is contemptuous of women.

I find him monstrous, though a particular form of monstrosity that can be quite affecting. I don't see this as sympathetic to Quin at all; I find it all the more damning in its recognition of his personhood, that he's not two-dimensional. This is someone who has weaponized empathy and turned it into something that facilitates a kind of systematic evisceration that is, at its heart, extraordinarily brutal.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:53 PM on July 9 [37 favorites]


The men I've known who resemble Quin would elicit a combination of jealousy and resentment from me—at how adept they were at engaging with sexuality in social circumstances, how brazen they were but still somehow got away with it. I put it down to their being attractive to and having chemistry with the people they flirted with in a way that I was not.

But it seems the difference between the fictional Quin and the real men he reminds me of is that almost all the real ones have been outed, not as scamps but as actual abusers. The ability of a person to wield power dynamics into ways that gratify them is very rarely benign.
posted by Jon_Evil at 9:00 PM on July 9 [7 favorites]


Ivan Fyodorovich you nailed it. This is a great piece of fiction that reflects a culture in which even the author is caught, and thus her description of the story and Quin doesn’t fully explain what they are, similar to Margot’s struggle to explain her own feelings to herself.
posted by sallybrown at 9:08 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]


I couldn't finish it. The Quin character registers as predator to me immediately and I didn't feel like waiting around for the inevitable graphic description of how he hurt someone. Plus the rich white people world the characters inhabit is so stale.

Gaitskill's comments sure don't make me want to change my mind. She's a skilled writer but is this anything but yet another story about a fascinating asshole? Because that genre is one I'm also done with.
posted by emjaybee at 9:37 PM on July 9 [19 favorites]


Quin is flawed, but he’s essentially a good man

I'm surprised she said this, because just a few paragraphs up she explained how he was driven by causing people pain. She herself acknowledges he's a sadist at heart!

There are people who get off on pushing boundaries - they're exciting, but they also leave you feeling kinda violated.

***

Another little detail, I think she also captured quite well the ostensibly benign, almost absent-minded racism white women have towards Asian women:

the expression of frank, fascinated alertness in her long eyes accentuated their unusual shape (a teardrop, tilted up)

her little Lucia, who was beyond striking, with her mother’s pure-black hair and enormous anime eyes
posted by airmail at 9:48 PM on July 9 [12 favorites]


Yeah, it's kind of a big failure that she can write a story with a monster who doesn't, apparently, ever resort to rape, then use that story to illustrate how perhaps the #MeToo movement has gone too far.

But compare how she describes Quin to how E. Jean Carrol described Trump, right before he did rape her. It is a similar joking pushing of boundaries, but we must trust that Quin is not a predator, not a monster, because that's how he was written.
posted by muddgirl at 9:52 PM on July 9 [9 favorites]


Another little detail, I think she also captured quite well the ostensibly benign, almost absent-minded racism white women have towards Asian women

This caught me. Made me distrust Margot a little. There's a lot going on here.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:12 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Gaitskill has made Quin into an embodiment of naughty fun; he calls himself a 'trickster' and says that he went too far, but he is not portrayed as a lustful, oppressive brute in any sense.

In fact, toward the end, Margot and her husband Todd equate him to the sprite Ariel of Shakespeare's The Tempest and his chief accuser to Sycorax, the evil witch who imprisoned him for 12 years:
“He wants to be friends with them,” Todd said incredulously.

“I know.”

“He’s fucked,” Todd said.

“I know.”

“Imprisoned in a cloven pine.”
I think she's actually making a case that light-hearted sexualized teasing between men and women ought not to be destroyed by the #MeToo movement.
posted by jamjam at 1:01 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


What is described in this story is not light-hearted sexual teasing between men and women, nor does Quin come across in this as a harmless "trickster." I actually found him completely revolting in his patronising view of women, his constant boundary pushing, the fact he thinks it's fun to tease a work colleague because he doesn't like her appearance even though he KNOWS she doesn't like it when he does. I can't see him as anything but a vampire that feeds off other people's attention and drama.

If I had to work with him I would absolutely find him oppressive, and an asshole.
posted by stillnocturnal at 2:54 AM on July 10 [13 favorites]


What I am curious about (not being familiar with New York literary circles) is, who are the characters modeled on?

People are generally not monsters, in the sense that even people who cause a great deal of harm generally also do positive things for at least some other people. No one is a cartoon villain. This comes up in the common defenses by other people or community members of powerful men who have abused or harassed people they have control over - the "but he's always been nice to me" defense. It's an insidious and harmful misunderstanding of how abuse of power works - I think exhibited most often by people who haven't been abused or harassed, because those who have been know very well that their abuser or harasser can be charming when he wants to be, and consequently often worry (with good reason, unfortunately) about not being believed when they tell their story. (And having to educate other people about that nuance - that someone can have acted in monstrous ways toward one person without being "a monster" in the cartoon villain/evil to everyone sense is a tiring additional layer of emotional work that society often puts on victims of abuse and harassment.)

From the bit quoted above, that is not what Gatskill was saying in the interview, unfortunately. She seemed to be saying that her character wasn't a monster from a perspective closer to that of those who defend abusers and harassers? I would have to read the full interview to understand what she was trying to say more clearly, perhaps.
posted by eviemath at 4:00 AM on July 10 [6 favorites]


Yeah, it's kind of a big failure that she can write a story with a monster who doesn't, apparently, ever resort to rape, then use that story to illustrate how perhaps the #MeToo movement has gone too far.

This was what I found curious about the story. I can absolutely believe in a Quin who is an awful but ambiguous figure who does sort of obtain what he might think of as "consent" from his victims and whose behavior is basically the far end of a sort of 1960s-asshole continuum of male character - someone who is not a rapist and doesn't actually hate women but whose participation in patriarchy is still monstrous. And I do think there's an interesting question here - what is the appropriate action in response to someone who is a social monster, someone who is an emotional abuser but not a rapist or sexual abuser?

But I'm confused about why the story is all about a petition and #MeToo, because all the #MeToo cases I recall were not "this guy was kind of an asshole but also kind of a friend, he did something skeevy that wasn't assault but we were also really close, I don't know how to feel but I'm upset" - all the cases I recall were about rapists, men who demanded sex from subordinates, men who unambiguously abused women. I don't recall any where someone's career was completely torched because he was both friend and boundary-crosser. And indeed, if we torched the careers of every man like that, we'd have a huge labor shortage.

So I feel like it's a weird choice to make this story a referendum on #MeToo when it's nothing like #MeToo. So often the discourse of "but this has gone too far" is about made up examples, not about what's actually happening. "Firing men for saying they like a colleague's shoes is going too far!!!!" kind of stuff, "It seems like we'd fire a man for giving a friend a hug" kind of stuff.

~~
On another note, the "what do we do about ambiguous but definitely unpleasant behaviour like Quin's" is pretty clearly "have work policies about not, eg, spanking your subordinates, even in jest", "hire more diversely so that you don't just have rich white men in senior positions", "let people unionize", "pay people more so that they're not financially dependent on making nice to the Quins of the world and they can actually choose whether his behavior is transgressively fun or super gross".

An awful lot of terrible behavior is enabled by hierarchy. I don't think there's some kind of huge mystery or giant Gender Truth about Quin. I think he's someone who has always been able to do exactly as he pleased because he's a rich white man with a high-profile arts job and so even strangers have trouble saying no to him.

Like, there isn't some kind of existential mystery to racist or sexist or homophobic abuse; it happens because some people are made undeservedly strong while others are kept weak. There are sort of internal quirks to it - the emotional draw of hurting people, etc. But the fundamental issue is that when people can get away with abuse because of power inequality you'll have abuse.

It only looks baroque and fascinating and deep and subtle if you don't want to end the inequality that causes it.
posted by Frowner at 4:22 AM on July 10 [46 favorites]


So often the discourse of "but this has gone too far" is about made up examples, not about what's actually happening.

And now this story will be added to the pile of "examples". I'm starting to get a little fed up with older white feminists, especially if they never had to work in a 'real' job. They seem to miss the point of a lot of recent discourse but aren't willing to listen to newer voices.
posted by harriet vane at 4:38 AM on July 10 [16 favorites]


I didn't realize that this is Gaitskill's second story in the New Yorker in less than a year. I think the two stories are very naturally read together. Here's the earlier one, "Acceptance Journey."
posted by escabeche at 4:52 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


To me, Margot read very clearly as a Caitlin Flanagan type. She even says a few things that I swear I have heard from Caitlin Flanagan (“I said no, why can’t they?”)

I believe Quin might be modeled on someone real, certainly there’s some echos of various shitty media men (some mentioned here). Certainly some of them were fired for similar offenses, Quin was very actively sexually harassing a bunch of his employees (the breast grab and spanking weren’t that bad? I think they were horrifying things for a male in position of power to do to a subordinate female).

I didn’t find almost any of the characters sympathetic at all (except the accusers, though they weren’t given much of a voice), but a very good read.
posted by rainydayfilms at 4:57 AM on July 10 [3 favorites]


Ugh, the rest of the interview with Gaitskill was equally cringey. She seems to have little awareness of hierarchical power dynamics (in the workplace, in particular).
posted by eviemath at 4:59 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


There is a lot going on here.

I don't think the story should be read as an essay that is making a case for something. I love Mary Gaitskill and her sentences are among the best but I think "Acceptance Journey" is better than this one, partly because I don't find Quin's interiority as presented here fully convincing. But the protagonists of the two stories, Quin and Carol, share a lot. Here's Carol, from "Acceptance Journey":
**
“Well, first I spent a lot of money on my husband’s kooky business, then I left him. She left her husband, too. But he was an asshole. To their child. In my marriage, I was the asshole.”

Dana looked at Carol directly, eyes creepy with supposition. But she said, “You don’t seem like an asshole, either.”

“I didn’t feel like one,” she said slowly. “But I think hardly anybody does.”

“No asshole would answer a letter in a tree from a kid.”

Oh, actually, one might.
***

Quin is certainly a stand-in for the author, at least in some ways. I mean this: "Quin believed that he could perceive people’s most essential nature just by looking at them" is a story that writers of prose fiction tell about themselves. They know it's just a story but they still tell it; you can't not tell it and do the work.

For sure I think this line at the end is doing work:

"In the subway, a hawk-nosed boy with dyed, stringy, somehow elegant hair squats and manipulates crude puppets to sexy music amid a weird tableau of old toys. There is something sinister; he looks up with a pale, lewd eye."

which of course is Quin seeing himself, projected out into the world. Remember: Quin is first presented to us, through Margot's eyes, like this: "He was at least forty, but he had the narrow frame and form of an elegant boy. His long brown hair fell over his brow in a juvenile style that was completely natural on him." Same words, "elegant" and "boy," same detail of the hairstyle that shouldn't work but does.

And then of course there is the next sentence. Here, I'll put all three together:

In the subway, a hawk-nosed boy with dyed, stringy, somehow elegant hair squats and manipulates crude puppets to sexy music amid a weird tableau of old toys. There is something sinister; he looks up with a pale, lewd eye. An older woman laughs too loudly, trying to get his attention.

"There is something sinister"; but what? Is it the figure of Quin himself? Or is it Quin's projection of the accusers: the older woman looking for attention, looking for his attention? Is it both? The position of the sentence puts you in direct contact with the narrator's knowing-and-not-knowing.
posted by escabeche at 5:41 AM on July 10 [11 favorites]


This was what he most liked: to give advice about the strange, small, things that can sit oddly close to a person’s heart, and sometimes press against it painfully.

Yes, to weaponize (as IF says, above) perceiving something deeply personal about a woman, and then using that opening to inflict cruelty, pass judgment, and push boundaries for his own satisfaction. And Margot will not look at this head-on. She leaves without accomplishing her purpose rather than confront gross behavior--gives her own "NO!" without fully reckoning with the "NO!" from other women--because in a moment of chaos, fear, and pain, she let him in, let him shape the boundaries of her reality. "And, just like that, I stopped falling." And that moment sets her up to minimize the harm he inflicts on her and the other women, even while she has an ambient sense of wrongness about his actions. It's an interesting exploration of that ambivalent mental/emotional space of knowing and yet resisting what knowing means and then requires.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:46 AM on July 10 [11 favorites]


I believe Quin might be modeled on someone real, certainly there’s some echos of various shitty media men (some mentioned here). Certainly some of them were fired for similar offenses, Quin was very actively sexually harassing a bunch of his employees (the breast grab and spanking weren’t that bad? I think they were horrifying things for a male in position of power to do to a subordinate female).

I guess the way I was understanding Gaitskill's intent was "Quin doesn't have a lot of self-insight but he is basically truthfully describing what happened" and that what happened was sorta-consenty in that it was just one more inch along an already weird and problematic trajectory, so there's some reason for his sort of "this is folie-a-deux, we're just a magic elixir" thinking.

I feel like Gaitskill is describing someone who is both an awful person and sincerely caught up in the moment in situations that seem to him to have their own logic and that have some degree of mutuality. (Hence the continued relationships, the flirty quality, the "we're just a magic elixir" email exchange, etc.) I think Gaitskill is describing a situation that does occur where - against a background of inequality - there is some mutuality and sort of mutual escalation, and that continues until the vulnerable party gets hurt, which is why it's the responsibility of the supervisor not to start.

I say this in part out of memory of an ill-advised flirtation with a slightly senior person at a job I had quite a while ago. It was a sort of "this is sparkly!" situation, there was mutuality...and yet, there was one moment that I remember very clearly where we basically looked at each other and I could see that we were both thinking, "this is going nowhere good" and we both stopped absolutely cold after that. Because this person was a good person, we stayed on genuinely friendly terms and nothing was weird, and I worked there for quite a while with a 100% return to normal. But the point is, I was sorta-consenting in the sense that I did not feel coerced or pressured, and it could have continued until I got hurt..

I feel like Gaitskill wants to let Quin off the hook because in the moment [if you believe that he's broadly telling the truth about facts] he felt that he was part of a mutual dynamic. She seems to be basically saying "this was kind of a screwed up dynamic but because it had elements of mutuality the background power dynamics don't matter".

I feel like her understanding of #MeToo is similar, that men are having their careers ruined over maybe being a little creepy but basically being caught up in a mutual dynamic, and she's depicting what she thinks is mutuality. Whereas I tend to think that it's very clear from #MeToo that there wasn't mutuality, that this stuff wasn't some kind of sparkly folie-a-deux where the guy just spun too far in their wild and artistic dance or whatever.

Like, I can believe that people are weird. I can believe that people's friendships can have weird dynamics and weird sexual elements. I can't believe that a bunch of women endanger their careers and open themselves up to all kinds of online hate by signing a petition against a powerful figure in the arts community just because they misunderstood a weird but mutual work dynamic, or because they're hopping on some kind of trend bandwagon.
posted by Frowner at 5:50 AM on July 10 [23 favorites]


I wouldn’t trust Quin or Margot as reliable narrators, nor would I trust Gaitskill as a reliable interpreter of the meaning of this piece, which is strange because I typically hate when people say this about authors. But here I think she captures something about the current moment that none of us is far enough away from to quite understand yet.

I agree that Margot reminds me of Caitlin Flanagan, whose writing I love reading even as I’m sitting there going “what the f*ck?” at times.
posted by sallybrown at 6:49 AM on July 10 [5 favorites]


Quin seems to be incapable of describing any woman in his orbit in purely positive terms. Every description includes a negative characteristic, often breezy and dismissive.

While I don't have much experience with "tricksters" of his age and type, I do have experience with so-called Pick Up Artists. They do the same thing and do it to women to their faces and they call it "negging".

It's precisely as disgusting as Quin.
posted by Enkidude at 7:19 AM on July 10 [10 favorites]


Last night it occured to me that this could be modeled on former editor of The Rumpus Stephen Elliott, whose name circulated on an anonymous list of "shitty media men." His defense of himself was partially that he is a sexual submissive, and thus could never abuse anyone.

Or it could be one of the other men on that list, I never saw the whole thing (only heard about the accusations from Elliot's publication of them). But it certainly reads as a response to the idea of that list, except transformed into a public petition.
posted by muddgirl at 8:03 AM on July 10 [5 favorites]


I can't believe that a bunch of women endanger their careers and open themselves up to all kinds of online hate by signing a petition against a powerful figure in the arts community just because they misunderstood a weird but mutual work dynamic, or because they're hopping on some kind of trend bandwagon.

This. That is, a weird but mutual dynamic is sort of by definition something that neither person feels abused by. Once one of the people involved feels as though they're being abused, and the objective conduct involved looks abusive, it's not mutual, it's abusive. This doesn't mean that honest misunderstandings are absolutely impossible, but someone who makes a habit of treating people in way that would be abusive if they didn't consent, and finds out in retrospect that many of those people do not think they did consent to being treated that way, is just straightforwardly abusing people. If you're the weirdo behaving in a quasi-abusive manner, you're the one who's responsible for being absolutely clear that everyone you're treating that way is fine with it.

Gaitskill seems to be writing about the possible innocent weirdo -- someone who really only intends to be interacting in a professionally inappropriate way with people who genuinely consent to the inappropriate interaction. And in the real world (as opposed to in her fictional story) I generally don't believe in the innocence of that kind of weirdo: most people are pretty good at knowing when they're being disturbing or upsetting, and people who act that way do it not because they don't know that people mind their behavior, but because they don't care. But even more strongly, I don't think 'innocent weirdo' is a defense. If you're self-aware enough to know that you're being inappropriate (which Quin in the story is, and which people who raise this sort of defense generally are -- I'm not talking about people who genuinely don't get normal behavior) you're responsible for being right about whether people mind your behavior or not. If you want to avoid the risk of being misunderstood, you always have the option of behaving appropriately.
posted by LizardBreath at 8:59 AM on July 10 [13 favorites]


"Quin believed that he could perceive people’s most essential nature just by looking at them..."

For me, this was a disconcerting way to begin the story because I share a version of that conceit. I wouldn't at all say that I perceive someone's "essential nature" merely by "looking at them", but all my life I've felt very aware of other people's needs and fears if I'm in their presence long enough. I find this to be far more a burden than a gift; I'm often feeling that I should be doing more to help people feel happier and this perceived (questionable, covertly arrogant) responsibility overwhelms me and therefore am often introverted to the point of reclusive.

But this is also why I find Quin so monstrous and abhorrent. To the degree to which my conceit of perceptiveness is true, is the degree to which I feel the temptation to be manipulatively self-serving. I was a child when I became aware of this and it frightened me; it still does. In response I think I frequently overcorrect and am deliberately unobservant and in consequence maladroit, which I find reassuring. There's a whole lot of weirdness packed into that, more than I'm comfortable sharing, there's narcissism and some other pathologies in it.

Nevertheless, I have always had a powerful dislike, even hatred and disgust, at people who are perceptive about others and use this ability as if they were puppeteers -- it seems so profoundly dehumanizing. I'm wary of it even if it's putatively benign, as it can be in myself, but find it horrifying when it is malicious. I mean, well, I think of it as evil.

I feel like Gaitskill is describing someone who is both an awful person and sincerely caught up in the moment in situations that seem to him to have their own logic and that have some degree of mutuality.

I refuse to give someone like Quin -- highly intelligent and very perceptive about people -- the benefit of the doubt with regard to knowing himself and being responsible for how he behaves. I believe that Quin and people like him build a lifetime of habits that create plausible deniability -- not just to present to others, but also to themselves. If they don't know what they are doing, it's because they have made an art of not seeing it.

"...which of course is Quin seeing himself, projected out into the world."

Yes, very much so, and it's damning. It is writerly, but there is some truth to the idea that a perceptive person who displaces their self-awareness will experience a kind of frequent, self-accusing projection of themselves upon people around him. I worry about this in myself.

"But I'm confused about why the story is all about a petition and #MeToo, because all the #MeToo cases I recall were not 'this guy was kind of an asshole but also kind of a friend, he did something skeevy that wasn't assault but we were also really close, I don't know how to feel but I'm upset' - all the cases I recall were about rapists, men who demanded sex from subordinates, men who unambiguously abused women. I don't recall any where someone's career was completely torched because he was both friend and boundary-crosser. And indeed, if we torched the careers of every man like that, we'd have a huge labor shortage."

Among these men, I recall a fairly broad-spectrum of behavior, from rape to things closer to what Quin does. But more to the point, I don't believe this is a qualitative difference at all. I think that many of those men began as a Quin and then progressed to explicit rape. I don't think that a male supervisor/manager who makes a habit of having sexual relationships with his subordinates is merely someone who is well-meaning but unwise, I think the power differential is a core component of his motivation and behavior.

I've not read Gaitskill's work before, but I gather that she frequently writes about transgression, sexual and otherwise, and BDSM themes.

I'm not sure if this is the right way to put it, but I think the danger of fictionalizing some of this is that the fact that it is a fictional narrative further muddies the waters between consent and the erotic appeal of transgression. It is no accident that the BDSM community takes issues of consent and safety so seriously, nor is it an accident that the BDSM community has to constantly grapple with those who willfully defy this ethos. In fiction, since none of this is real, the issues of transgression and consent and eroticism can exist in sort of a Schroedinger's Box. In real life, Quin's behavior would strike most people as repulsive, not charmingly transgressive. We may like the idea of the trickster Quin, as he sees himself, far more than we like the reality. The reality is just gross.

I think the majority of the sexual predation of women by men exists in these liminal spaces where there's ambiguity, plausible deniability, coerced complicity, self-deception, and gaslighting. Just because Quin doesn't qualify as a "rapist" doesn't mean he's not a sexual predator. Indeed, just because much of his predation is emotional and not physical doesn't mean he's not a sexual predator because the whole context of the relationships he cultivates with women implicitly involves their bodies, their sexuality, their availability for a man's enjoyment, the implicit coercion of the patriarchal power imbalance magnified by the professional power differential and age. The theme of his behavior is almost always transgressive. The exceptions are where he's supportive ... but that's so unambiguously a kind of grooming.

I don't relate at all with Quin's sexual predation of women. I recognize some of it from my own socialization as a man, but much of this is a kind of parallel reality that I've always been vaguely aware of but never existed within and in that's sense it's both sort of alien while holding a perverse fascination. Quin's mode of predation is not predominant, it's an alternate but parallel path. Most of male predation is more reliant on brute force, physical or emotional or otherwise. But he is very much a sexual predator.

His generalized predation does resonate with me for the reasons I wrote about earlier. I've always feared I could be someone like him because the ability and opportunity to toy with other people has a powerful allure -- at the very least, it can be a defensive strategy, a way of asserting control to limit vulnerability. Quin has entirely internalized an instrumental view of other people, or at least of women (given we learn little of his relationships with other men), where one use he has for them is as subjects of his analysis and experimentation. But it's no coincidence that his subjects are women and that his methods are very sexualized.

On preview, what LizardBreath said:

"But even more strongly, I don't think 'innocent weirdo' is a defense. If you're self-aware enough to know that you're being inappropriate (which Quin in the story is, and which people who raise this sort of defense generally are -- I'm not talking about people who genuinely don't get normal behavior) you're responsible for being right about whether people mind your behavior or not."
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:25 AM on July 10 [16 favorites]


But to behave as if he were a monster, equivalent to a rapist,

See, this is the exact shit that drives me bonkers these days.

My rapist is not a monster. He was my husband. He is currently an excellent dad to our children, in addition to being a reliable and co-operative co-parent and ex-husband. He has OCD and he beats himself up for ridiculous "mistakes." He has low self esteem. He's extraordinarily guileless, and always sincere, well intentioned, etc.

Rapists aren't monsters. NOBODY is a monster. To speak of monsters existing in the world is what trips us up when we come up against a rapist, or, as the case may be, a narcissistic sweet-talker who uses his people skills as a weapon to claim dominion over them, body and soul, for his own self aggrandizement.
posted by MiraK at 9:31 AM on July 10 [28 favorites]


For me the most damning moment is when Quin orders the author at the book signing to bite his thumb. His interpretation is that he invited her to play and she was such a fuddy-duddy that she couldn't get on board. What I saw was that here is a woman at the center of attention, at an event that was about her, with all eyes on her, and he decided that she should perform a submissive act towards him as publicly as possible. When she wouldn't, when she held her own space fiercely, he was so taken aback that he continued to dwell on the incident for years. That implies that hardly anyone felt able to turn him down, and that the solitary "No"s in his life are very vivid to him. There was no awareness in him at any point that he was asking the woman to cede the top spot in the room to him, but that's what it was, very pointedly.
posted by DSime at 9:46 AM on July 10 [32 favorites]


Is it weird that I'm growlingly frustrated at the New Yorker for publishing this, at the author for writing it, at the multitudes who will read it and say, "Ah, that beautiful sensitive man, this is a sign of our times." How is it not OBVIOUS that he is a predator?

There is no ambiguity embodied in a man whose first real encounter with the other main character was an attempt to grab her by the pussy. For fuck's sake.

Yeah okay I'm going to stop commenting now.
posted by MiraK at 9:52 AM on July 10 [15 favorites]


I think she's actually making a case that light-hearted sexualized teasing between men and women ought not to be destroyed by the #MeToo movement.

And also of course, making the case that it is the man who should get to determine what "light-hearted sexualized teasing" consists of. Also it's the man who gets to determine whether or not "light-hearted sexualized teasing" is appropriate in a work context.

Its not quite at the level of a "Oh that poor Mr. Weistein, why doesn't anybody understand him?" rant. But it's obviously part of the same backlash against #metoo. It reaches the same conclusion of "Why won't these women shut up and just let our creative geniuses do their thing? "
posted by happyroach at 10:23 AM on July 10 [11 favorites]


It's interesting that many readers and the author herself can see this as a kind of defense of Quin and an indictment of supposed #MeToo excesses when it seems quite clearly to me to be the opposite.

I'd like to think Gaitskill is trolling people because whatever one may think about the extent of Quin's behavior, his motivation, method, areas of transgression, preferred targets, and self-serving sense of being badly misunderstood are all right out of the playbook of the #MeToo predators.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:33 AM on July 10 [6 favorites]


Yeah I was honestly shocked by the interview. I think it's a mistake for readers to assume that the author agrees with their narrators but it was apparently true in this case. I guess looking back I was suspicious when Margot told of the acquaintance who said it was a mistake to sign the petition and begged Margot to tell her how Quin was feeling, that part rang very false to me at the time, but I chalked it up to Margot as an unreliable narrator.

Throughout, Margot confuses Quin's neediness with intimacy. Quin puts his head in her lap and recites childish poetry - that is somehow a gift that Quin gave to Margot?
posted by muddgirl at 11:48 AM on July 10 [7 favorites]


In the subway, a hawk-nosed boy with dyed, stringy, somehow elegant hair squats and manipulates crude puppets to sexy music amid a weird tableau of old toys. There is something sinister; he looks up with a pale, lewd eye. An older woman laughs too loudly, trying to get his attention.

"There is something sinister"; but what? Is it the figure of Quin himself? Or is it Quin's projection of the accusers: the older woman looking for attention, looking for his attention? Is it both? The position of the sentence puts you in direct contact with the narrator's knowing-and-not-knowing.


If Quin is Ariel, where is Caliban?

In one of the most famous productions of The Tempest, Herbert Beerbohm Tree portrayed an extremely sinister Caliban with long, stringy orange hair -- and to make the identification more complete, Beerbohm Tree was also the manager of the Haymarket Theatre, and most definitely the puppet manipulator.

And to make this all the more uncomfortable, the Beerbohms were "reputedly" of Jewish descent.
posted by jamjam at 12:45 PM on July 10


One of the keys to this and stories like this...if it wasn’t about sexual manipulation and boundary-crossing, why didn’t he do it to men?

That really is sufficient. If you've got someone creating extra bullshit for women--and only women--to deal with, and especially sexualized bullshit, you can't employ him. I think it's just plain illegal in a lot of places.
posted by straight at 1:45 PM on July 10 [9 favorites]


I felt like the tone of this changed drastically in the last few sections. To me, Quin was being portrayed as a Humbert Humbert type: louche, charming, amusingly narcissistic, but absolutely sinister. His every description of a woman is writerly but objectifying. It's clear he cherishes them, but as a child cherishes a toy, with no concept of their agency.

It doesn't bother me that the last bit asks us to sympathize: as said upthread, he's still a human being. But it asks us to see moral ambiguity in his shitty behavior and question the justice he gets. That was a disappointing after such a rich, creepy character sketch.
posted by condour75 at 3:51 PM on July 10 [8 favorites]


If they don't know what they are doing, it's because they have made an art of not seeing it.

Quoting for truth.
posted by eviemath at 8:20 PM on July 10 [2 favorites]


Condour75 summarizes it well: the first part of the story is an excellent exercise in unreliable narrators: first Quin, the sexual predator and sadistic misogynist who lies, even to himself, that what he’s doing is harmless or even invited. He can’t see, or won’t admit, that he does what he does because he enjoys exercising power over women.

The second unreliable narrator is his friend Margot, the woman who sees, but can’t or won’t admit, the very fucked up psychology that is behind Quin’s behaviour towards her and other women. She blames other women for not standing up to him if they didn’t like what he was doing, but we see flashes that she knows this is unreasonable.

And yet! At the end of the story, Gaitskill undoes this well built foundation by adding bits like the accuser who regrets having signed the petition, or implying that the other women who signed were willing participants in a sexual game, and are now taking advantage of a supposed momentary power imbalance tipped towards “victims” in the era of #MeToo, in order to crush poor bewildered sexual harassers who didn’t know any better and thought everyone was consenting, and were just trying to do women a favour by helping them experience the unfettered freedom to be subjected to men’s sexual whims and domination plays!

Gaitskill’s tone deaf and cringeworthy author interview only cements this reading for me.

Gaitskill: I would say that his actions are more annoying and kooky than actually abusive: for example, sending a “spanking video” to an employee, Caitlin. That sounds awful as an abstract anecdote, but then Margot learns that Caitlin actually told him, unsolicited, that she liked spanking. I agree with Margot: sending the video is still rude. I wouldn’t like it if I were Caitlin. But, given what she willingly told him, I can’t call it abuse. If he asked her into his office and showed it to her while they were alone in the building, that would be different, frightening to the point of abusive. But he didn’t do that.

Rude? Annoying? Kooky?? It’s sexual harassment and it could be plenty frightening to receive a video like that from your BOSS, regardless of whether you’d said you liked spanking or not. I mean for fuck’s sake. Gaitskill is either deliberately playing stupid or really doesn’t understand power dynamics.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:08 AM on July 11 [12 favorites]


condour75: "To me, Quin was being portrayed as a Humbert Humbert type: louche, charming, amusingly narcissistic, but absolutely sinister"

Or Quilty, hence the Q.
posted by chavenet at 3:13 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]


I would say that his actions are more annoying and kooky than actually abusive: for example, sending a “spanking video” to an employee, Caitlin. That sounds awful as an abstract anecdote, but then Margot learns that Caitlin actually told him, unsolicited, that she liked spanking. I agree with Margot: sending the video is still rude. I wouldn’t like it if I were Caitlin. But, given what she willingly told him, I can’t call it abuse. If he asked her into his office and showed it to her while they were alone in the building, that would be different, frightening to the point of abusive. But he didn’t do that.

And again, this is a way of totally ignoring the structural aspects of the situation and the fact that the response needs to be a policy response, made by considering the aggregate and most likely outcome of a situation.

Is it possible for a boss and a subordinate to have fun exchanging spanking videos? Sure, the universe is large. However, it's rare and unlikely, and the likely outcome instead is abuse, discomfort, messing with people's careers.

This is why instead of saying "let's carefully decide whether each individual Quin is a good person with good motives and whether their subordinates are genuinely upset or just misreading something or hopping on a bandwagon", people with sense say that the responsibility for the work relationship rests with the supervisor because the supervisor has the power in the relationship. The supervisor should not do things that an informed person would see as having a lot of potential for abuse. Quin's responsibility was not to develop a relationship with his hires in which they talked about their sex lives in any detail, in which he evaluated their appearance and bodies, etc etc. If his hires spontaneously started talking about their sex lives in detail, his responsibility was to steer the conversation away from those topics.

I mean, yes, this does mean that spontaneity is reduced, a human relationship is made less subtle and more rote, things that are individual are made to fit into a mold, etc etc. Instead of saying, "I am going to carefully read this situation and respond fluidly and artistically in an individual way", one says, "I am going to consider probabilities and rules when I consider what I discuss at work". And that's just what it is. If I'm cooking for a large group of strangers, I don't just toss in the ghost peppers and common allergens either, even if I'm a very spontaneous and artistic cook.

I find this type of fiction, which seems very mid-century to me in voice and concerns, to be extremely frustrating because it always seems to say, "don't understand widespread social problems as having commonalities or some kind of moral valence; instead, understand them as infinitely subtle matters of individual psychology, about which little can be done except to wryly say that the victims aren't self-aware enough".
posted by Frowner at 5:31 AM on July 11 [23 favorites]


Related: Are millennials really driving ‘cancel culture’ - or is it their overcautious critics?

It is younger people who are clearest about consent, what constitutes abuse, what may be said and by whom. Their seniors, who lived through the sexual revolution, are the ones who claim it’s complicated.

posted by chavenet at 7:07 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]


very mid-century

Yes, this. Which is not a criticism as such, but underlines the ways it's not really hitting the target on #MeToo issues.
posted by harriet vane at 8:55 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]


yeah, I mean, there's plenty of classically "mid-century" fiction that I like a lot! it's just that the set of assumptions that underpin this approach don't seem well suited to the topic.
posted by Frowner at 9:01 AM on July 11


I find this type of fiction, which seems very mid-century to me in voice and concerns, to be extremely frustrating because it always seems to say, "don't understand widespread social problems as having commonalities or some kind of moral valence; instead, understand them as infinitely subtle matters of individual psychology, about which little can be done except to wryly say that the victims aren't self-aware enough".

This is an excellent crystallization of the type of moral offered. Thank you for providing such a succinct distillation of the key misdirection.
posted by PMdixon at 4:03 PM on July 11 [4 favorites]


Yeah I very much wish I had never seen that interview. Christ.
posted by schadenfrau at 4:22 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]


I very much wish I had never read this story! IDK, I have never been able to get through Lolita either. This genre of writing, where the author takes on a fraught social issue via the device of an outrageously sympathetic aggressor, has always seemed wrong to me. Why? Like WHY would you do that, as an artist?

Even if Gaitskill had expressed sensible opinions in that interview, the fact remains that she has put a piece of art out there which can be reasonably read as justification for structural violence. The very purpose of her story is to encourage debate about a thing which ought not to be up for debate.

It's hard for me to escape the sense that Gaitskill, in writing this story, sees herself as a Quin of sorts: someone whose living, seeking energy is bound up in feeling free to go right up to the edge of acceptability without quite going over (in their opinion). Someday, when Mary Gaitskill has written a lot of such stories, and reasonable people begin to denounce her as a regressive jerkwad, I'm sure she will feel quite as innocently toppled over as Quin did at the end of this story. "But I was just exploring a controversial idea in order to make you think!" will never not be a coward's defense for this genre of writing.
posted by MiraK at 5:37 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]


That kind of has been Gaitskill’s beat, since, like, the 80s. Her first collection is literally called Bad Behavior. But she cast these things as transgressive in the punching up sort of way, and this was born out in those early interviews — I remember one where the male interviewer leered this question at her: “have you ever turned a trick?”

She answered: “Yes. Have you?”

I don’t think Gaitskill ever got rich (they did make Secretary into that movie with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, though the movie is puppy dogs and rainbows compared to the short story), but she has been part of the sort of literary elite for a long time now. I wonder how that changes things.
posted by schadenfrau at 6:44 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]


I can't really figure out how much my own response to this story is influenced by my being a man, either more sympathetic to Quin, more condemnatory of Quin (which is my own self-assessment), or just idiosyncratic. Likewise, my experience in rape crisis and longtime efforts opposing sexual violence against women. Or for that matter, my personal connection (via my ex-wife) to Jian Ghomeshi (whom I despise).

To my mind, the fact that Quin is supposedly "sympathetic" and that a few of the women around him are ambivalent, and that his closest female friend, Margot, is apparently publicly understood as his defender while her own narrative is at least as damning as anything else we learn about Quin, and that his wife is badly hurt and put in an impossible situation, or that we have some sympathy for his daughter (although she's indirectly shown as unhappy with Quin's "flirting with every woman he sees"), well, I find that maybe 10% sympathetic and 90% utterly damning, which seems to me to both be true-to-life and ironically all the worse an indictment because while most of these men aren't "monsters", I am profoundly unsympathetic to them and believe they deserve every bad thing they experience when they are exposed. That they aren't psychopathic monsters isn't a defense, for crying out loud.

Furthermore, most of the public figures I've read about and all of the men I've known who I've seen behave like this or suspect behave like this have people, including women, who defend them. Sometimes the women are the most adamant. Although perverse, this is sort of how I see Gaitskill. This often muddies the waters of public discourse because we want villains to be unambiguously evil, and I think that's (on a social basis) kind of infantile. We need to confront and accept the fact that men who are sexual predators are frequently very good at compartmentalizing and presenting very favorable versions of themselves to many people, including their victims.

Gaitskill can fuck right off if she wants this to be seen as a defense of the Quins of the world and an indictment of #MeToo -- I think the work itself implicitly condemns her urge to minimize and defend. Quin is an unreliable narrator, so is Margot -- many of the good things about his persona are cherry-picked by the two of them even as they both inadvertently reveal a lot of his ugliness and that a whole bunch of people find him at best insufferable and at worst toxic and predatory. In this Gaitskill is very like Quin and Margot -- she wants to believe he's not that bad, but she can't help but reveal that he is. I find that to be a powerful, important message: that the author herself can't avoid undermining her own thesis. Because it's bullshit.

I think this story is doing a social service in bringing this all to light because, when it comes down to it, apropos of our time, the very first of Quin's violations is an attempted "pussy grab". How can anyone, ever, defend that while still imaginimg themselves as opposed to rape?
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:43 PM on July 11 [8 favorites]


Yeah, as MiraK said above - There is no ambiguity embodied in a man whose first real encounter with the other main character was an attempt to grab her by the pussy. For fuck's sake.

I stopped reading the story right there - maybe it was a mistake to read the interview with the author before reading the story, but after what she says in there, having that scene come up so early in the story was very disappointing. They aren’t long-standing mates joking about at that stage, they basically just met. He’s being obnoxious at best. Where’s the subtlety and nuance and room for interpretation she talks about in the interview there?
posted by bitteschoen at 3:36 AM on July 12 [2 favorites]


IDK, I have never been able to get through Lolita either. This genre of writing, where the author takes on a fraught social issue via the device of an outrageously sympathetic aggressor...

I’ve never been able to read Humbert Humbert as sympathetic. He’s an ass and a bore from the first. Neither of those is worse than being a rapist, which he ultimately becomes, but neither particularly invites sympathy.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:55 PM on July 12


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