Gaitskill writes in clean, rigorous prose but builds in tripwires that keep the reader guessing where her sympathies might lie. There’s always a rub — and usually a pinch and a slap, too. The second time I read the story, I spotted more subtle ways in which Quin exploits his power, but Gaitskill shows compassion, suggesting that he is targeted because the real predators can evade capture. Quin, sympathetic to his accusers, tells Margot they “are angry at what’s happening in the country and in the government. They can’t strike at the king, so they go for the jester.”
Mary Gaitskill is renowned for her writing on female sexuality and sado-masochism, and her prose here is perfectly poised. Reading This is Pleasure is like walking on a tightrope of questions that don’t allow easy answers. In a New Yorker interview last year, Gaitskill’s views appeared more explicit than in this story. While clearly on the side of women speaking out, she is also concerned about the current situation of men: ‘I feel that masculinity is being demonised and sex is being demonised, that physical touch is viewed with inordinate suspicion.’ And that, she says, ‘seems dangerous to me, in a different way’.
When the book opens, Quin has been disgraced, removed from his job following allegations of inappropriate behaviour made by several young women. Nothing in This Is Pleasure, however, is clear cut. If Gaitskill’s narrative is dextrous, taut and pertly sexy, it is also ambivalent, hell bent on a certain kind of obfuscation. Naturally, Quin is confused by the way those he thought of as friends and proteges have turned against him. But he’s not the only one. Even as Margot gives her own account of his bad behaviour – during one of their earliest encounters, he attempted to place his hand between her legs – she is baffled by the charge card against him, hurt and worried for him, and convinced that his punishment outweighs the crime... At the heart of this extraordinary, daring, provocative, pitch perfect story lies the idea that, sometimes, we act out a truth, only to run from it. The sensible among us know that the running is true, too, and that between these two realities lies a world of pleasure and then, abruptly, pain.