Saturday, December 12, 2015

Two Girls, Fat and Thin (by Mary Gaitskill)

A selection for the League of Unreliable Narrators, my long-distance book group with Chris and Wendy. And as I told them, "I didn't not like it." A rousing endorsement!

One of the focal points of the novel is a frankly hilarious satire of Ayn Rand. You all know how I feel about Rand. Having read The Fountainhead in particular, all the details made me laugh. But let me assure you this is not a ha ha funny book. There's a lot of background of childhood sexual abuse, for example. And honestly, probably too much childhood stuff in general -- I think the flashbacks comprise almost half of the novel, and are less compelling, after a point, than the present day.

The central story is of course about two women, one fat (Dorothy) and one thin (Justine). They meet when Justine interviews Dorothy about the work of "Anna Granite" (the perfect fake Rand name) and Dorothy's time as part of the Definitist movement. We then get about half a book's worth of flashback to their aforementioned abusive childhoods. We then get back to the present day, where Dorothy (my favorite) is pretty much continually eating or thinking about eating junk food in an unfortunately over-the-top way, and kind of obsessing over Justine (in a way that's not over-the-top enough). Justine is making bad choices regarding men.  The story of Dorothy and Anna Granite is told and ends abruptly, and then we get some explicit and semi-rapey sex.  Which Rand also loved, how meta.

On the sentence level, this book is stunning. I have a friend who is a big Gaitskill fan and I can see why. From the story of a subway ride: "As I waited my turn I scanned the magazines and papers, the horrific headlines and happy faces that help give form to our inchoate and vulnerable mass psyche." A few chapters later, Wendy and I both underlined "Her voice held a tea party in the garden while a child was murdered in the house."  There are many of these moments.  But ultimately I felt the novel to be a bit fragmented, a little less than the sum of its parts.

As I told the League, part of the issue for me was expectations. The novel opens with a Nabokov quote, Justine's last name is Shade, and Dorothy has this homoerotic fixation on Justine. It is too Pale Fire-ish to be a coincidence. (Justine Shade = John Shade, I mean come on.) In addition, Dorothy's parts are told in first-person and Justine's in third-person -- does this mean Dorothy is telling Justine's story? And how does Anna Granite fit in? Does she even exist?  Not to spoil too much, but the Pale Fire nods do not mean the book shares Pale Fire's structure. Although I really enjoyed the ending of Two Girls (particularly Dorothy's interaction with Bryan), I was kind of disappointed that Dorothy didn't wrap things up by declaring herself the king of Zembla.

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