This Is Pleasure, Mary Gaitskill


April 2023

Mary Gaitskill wrote This Is Pleasure as a response to the #MeToo movement, which seems like ancient history given all the seismic world shifts since. Do you remember that Shitty Media Men list calling out bad men? It began in 2017 and This Is Pleasure was published in 2019. Did it achieve anything? Men with wandering hands would certainly say so, given they can lose their jobs now for bottom pinching, where before they might have crowed about it.

But this review isn’t an analysis of the movement and its fallout. Nor is Gaitskill’s wonderfully slim but dense story. It is the tale of one man’s fall from grace when called out by a younger colleague.

Two old friends narrate the story alternately. Quin, a sophisticated New York editor - though English - who is married but well known for his numerous close relationships (platonic!) with female colleagues. Margot, who was once one such woman, also married and of a similar-ish age, in the same ballpark as Quin at least if a little younger. If I remember the book right, Quin once put his hand on her leg and she brushed him off, setting out the power structure for their ongoing relationship, or so she thought.

Margot thinks herself apart from his younger group of acolytes, an intellectual match compared to his indulgences elsewhere. And they do feel like indulgences, an example of Gaitskill’s wonderful ability to capture tone; all these girls seem like treats or kittens for Quin to play with or not from one day to the next. Even if their relationships aren’t physical or sexual, and the point seems to be that mostly they aren’t, but they are clearly unsettling, with the power balance shot to fuck.

Years later, Quin in ruins accused of sexual harassment, Margot goes over their dealings and the scales begin to fall from her eyes. But this isn’t a straightforward case, every memory is thick with nuance, every interchange ripe for interpretation. Gaitskill is so deft and playful; it feels as if she is holding the story like a snowglobe in her hand, able to see every possible iteration, and how it might go one way or the other under a cloak of faux snow.

No one wins in this story. It is one of repeating self-examination - on Margot’s part, mostly, with sadly little on Quin’s part. He is wrong, Margot realises. Doesn’t she? But how wrong is he? Does he deserve to lose as he does? When I read how Quin speaks about women, his callous appraisal of them based on their looks and his acute sense of style and taste, I despise him. But when I hear what finally took him down, I do feel a shred of empathy.

We all have opinions and loyalties and need to speak out and take sides, but This Is Pleasure is such a striking example of how, even if there is a right and a wrong, and both plain to see, it doesn’t make that right and wrong black and white, and nor should we. It is helpful to analyse, to disagree, to argue. To turn around as we try and see things from other perspectives, even if we ultimately return to the same spot we started in.

When it comes to Gaitskill, though, is there a debate to be had? On this brief one example, she feels as brilliant as everyone told me.

I bought my copy of This Is Pleasure (Profile, £6.99) from Book Bodega, a brilliant independent bookshop in Ramsgate