While I was working at the library recently, I happened across a New Yorker Fiction podcast where Jennifer Egan (who has an absolutely delightful voice) reads Mary Gaitskill’s “The Other Place.” For those of you unfamiliar with the story – or Gaitskill’s oeuvre in general – it concerns a man who since he was young has fantasized about harming women. But, as with most of Gaitskill’s stories, and especially her later stories, what could come across as a sensational grotesque ends up being something much more serious, even a little bit moral. What I’ve always liked about Gaitskill’s fiction is the way her stories force the reader into difficult corners, taking away their avenues of easy escape. For one thing, Gaitskill is a master of the first person, which she employs in “The Other Place,” to lull the reader into sympathy. Here is the first paragraph:
“My son, Douglas, loves to play with toy guns. He is thirteen. He loves video games in which people get killed. He loves violence on TV, especially if it’s funny. How did this happen? The way everything does, of course. One thing follows another, naturally.”
By focusing first on the son’s appetite for violence, and also establishing the narrator’s forthright, logical, and surprisingly intimate voice, Gaitskill forces the reader to sympathize immediately with his plight, so that later, when his own history of (imagined) violence emerges, we find ourselves invested in tricky moral territory. What would we do, if we found ourselves in thrall to a sexual fantasy that we knew was socially (or even morally) reprehensible? To what extent are all of our desires forged out of fantasies, and what do we do when these fantasies threaten to spill over into reality? No other writer I know approaches these kinds of questions as skillfully and unflinchingly as Gaitskill.
But on listening to this story (after having read it some years ago) I was struck by something I hadn’t noticed before. The phrase which the narrator uses – “the other place” – to describe the feeling he gets when he’s slipping into a sexual fantasy, is itself something of a proxy for the way a fiction writer moves into another world when working on a narrative. As the narrator of the story tells us, in an earlier and more innocent phase: “I just wanted to sit and watch, to touch other people’s things, to drink in their lives.”
I was even a bit chilled, listening to the story, because I understand the feeling to some extent. After a long bout of writing (four or hours or more), I often feel as if the world I’ve been creating is pushing at the boundaries of reality, especially now that I’m working on a novel, and the world is continuous, more solid than it is when I’m working on a piece of short fiction. When I get home from my studio and spend time with my wife and our housemates I sometimes have difficulty reintegrating myself into the world as it is; I’m quieter than usual.
There’s nothing macabre about this, of course – I’d say my inner life is relatively harmless, and there are no Bret Easton Ellis-style serial murderers in my fiction. But I do remember sitting outside a punk show with my friend Emily, a while back, and telling her that writing a novel was like going into “the other place,” of living in two worlds at once. Certainly the characters in your novel take on a certain form, and things in the real world begin to remind you of them. Certainly the whole thing is a bit eerie.
I didn’t use the phrase “the other place” as a conscious homage to Gaitskill, when I told my friend Emily about novel-writing. But as I listened to Egan’s fantastic reading of this story, I wondered if she hadn’t somehow seeped into my unconscious, the way excellent writing often does. Perhaps I felt that the story was a kind of comment on fiction-making, the first time I read it, without quite realizing it.
Regardless, the story stuck with me. Go listen to it; I’m sure it will stick with you, too.