This Is Pleasure
reviewed by Jon Duelfer
Among the assorted writing in The BEST American Short Stories 2020, Mary Gaitskill’s This Is Pleasure immediately stood out as refined and perfectly toned. Many of the other stories – both from less experienced writers and less prestigious magazines than The New Yorker – struggled to find cohesive styles and crisp writing, at least in my opinion.
The combination between Gaitskill’s decades of writing and The New Yorker’s world-class editing helped craft This Is Pleasure into an excellent piece of short fiction.
At first, I didn’t think this way. I was even somewhat put off by the premise of the story. Although Gaitskill’s writing was clearly well-formed, it seemed like a conventional, drab, copy-and-paste, literary story of middle to upper-class writers/editors working for a large publishing house where some minor conflict occurs to disrupt their ordinary lives. Literary journals are filled to the brim with templates like this.
Gaitskill immediately puts down any doubts and constructs a thought-provoking, suspenseful story filled with vibrant characters. It reminded me of HBO’s The Undoing, where the intersection of high society and middle America coalesce for an insightful reflection on our ordinary lives, masked behind the aura of bourgeois society.
The narration jumps back and forth between two main characters: Margot and Quin. Twenty years earlier, Quin had interviewed Margot for an assistant editor position at a renown publishing house. Margot recalls what she thought of him: “I knew that he was English, from old-school wealth (father a banker, mother in organized charity), and that he was eccentric.”
The interview was more eccentric than she expected. Quin “asked a lot of questions that seemed irrelevant and personal, including whether or not I had a boyfriend.” Margot ended up taking another job, but they constantly ran into each other at literary events and became good friends over the years.
Quin is a weird person. Although Margot described him as eccentric, people in the real world would immediately peg him as off. He asks prying questions into Margot’s sexual life that seem way too personal for the relationship they have. Margot enjoys this off-kilter aspect to their relationship, and perceives Quin’s strangeness as endearing.
The problem is that Quin is this way with many women, including those that work under him. Margot alludes to some event that had drastically changed her view of him.
Why did I think it was so funny? It seems strange to me when I look back on it now. Because I don’t want to laugh. I feel pain. Real heart pain. Subtle. But real.
Before diving into whatever the foreshadowed situation may be, each character tells their own version of events leading up to it. In this way, we get two perspectives of each secondary character. Gaitskill’s descriptions are exceptional, painting a vibrant picture of each woman that Quin had a relationship with. Of his wife, Margot recalls:
She made a surprisingly distinct impression; she was an assistant editor at a fashion magazine, nearly twenty years younger than Quin, and I was not expecting to be impressed, except by her beauty. Of course she was beautiful, and very elegantly so. She was half Korean and half Argentine, and aristocratic on both sides; her family owned land outside of Buenos Aires. Her bearing was electric and deeply calm at once. She had a way of coking her head that emphasized the purity of her facial lines, and the expression of frank, fascinated alertness in her long eyes accentuated their unusual shape (a teardrop, tilted up). She didn’t say very much during the dinner, but she listened with erect intensity, as if her body were an antenna, and her uptilted eyes and ears seemed linked, functioning as a single organ. She was a presence you took seriously, even if she barely spoke, even if she was only twenty-seven years old.
We then learn about Caitlin, Hortense, and Sharona – women who all worked for Quin. Quin recounts how their relationships evolved, how he began flirting to build a stronger friendship. He retells the sexual jokes he made, depicting them not as sexual advances, but simple jokes meant to alleviate work-based tension.
Margot believes him for the most part. Their relationship was built on many of the same types of jokes, which she found to be charming. His stunts were dirty, sure, but they weren’t meant to be harmful. In fact, she thinks Quin is one of the most sensitive men that she knows, and often tells him of her intimate feelings before telling her husband.
What is absolutely crucial to note, however, is that Margot’s and Quin’s relationship is entirely mutual. It’s based on equal terms. The other women, who we soon learn are speaking out against Quin’s harassment, are confined within the power dynamics of a workplace.
Quin is a very successful, influential man in the publishing business. The women are looking to break into it as assistant editors. What characteristics may have seemed eccentric or jovial from Margot’s perspective take a much more sinister turn.
It’s so terrible and so absurd. Absurd that I did certain things, yes. Absurd too that Caitlin holds a position that I helped her get and from that position accuses me of things that she was party to. Even more absurd, she is called “brave” for it.
As I just mentioned, Margot is detached from the workspace power dynamics. Based upon her own relationship with Quin, she tends to trivialize the problem.
“This is what I don’t understand. It was her idea – no it was my idea. But she more than went along with it. She didn’t have to stick her ass out. She didn’t have to do anything. None of them had to.”
“Quin,” I said. “I would never say this in public. I wouldn’t say it to anybody but you. And maybe Todd [Margot’s husband]. But listen. Women are like horses. They want to be led. They want to be led, but they also want to be respected. You have to earn it, every time. And they are as strong as fuck. If you don’t respect them, they will throw you off and prance around the paddock while you lie there bleeding. That’s what I think.”
Quin looks to defend himself against any allegations of sexual harassment by saying he never made sexual advances on these women. To him, it was all flirtation, part of a game. This defense does not help him, and it even seems to make the situation worse.
“I flirted. That’s all it was. I did it to feel alive without being unfaithful. I never-”
“It would be more dignified if you had,” Caroline replied. “It would’ve been more normal.”
“Your not even a predator,” she said quietly. “Not even. You’re a fool. A pinching, creeping fool. That is what’s unbearable.”
Now that the backstories have been completed and the allegations are out in the open, Margot tries to understand her own perspective.
This is where I don’t understand my own feelings. When I say to my colleagues that the women should have just told Quin to stop, that I had told him to stop and had made him stop, they inevitably tell me that the power was disproportionately his, and that even if in theory the women could have pushed back they should not be expected to, they shouldn’t have to. I get aggravated then and splutter about female agency versus infantilization, etc. I say, yes, he acted badly. I was angry at him too. But did he deserve to lost his job, his right to work, his honor as a human? Did he have to be so completely and utterly crushed? Couldn’t people have just made fun of him for being a dirty Jiminy Cricket and left it at that?
Quin’s reaction is to feel like he is targeted, somehow the victim of the situation. He feels like he’s just a cog in the changing tides of society.
“That this is the end of men like me. That 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. They may not win now, but eventually they will. And who am I to stand in the way? I don’t want to stand in the way.”
His aura of eccentricity finally breaks down into the sad, weird person he actually is. Margot reveals to him that she had been sexually abused as a child. Quin asks who the abuser was, and Margot responds:
“A friend of the family…I remember climbing in his lap and trying to comfort him.”
“I’m sure you did comfort him. You must’ve been a little angle to him.”
“Quin,” I said. “That’s a weird thing to say.”
“Why? Children can be powerful. I’m sure you took away the pain for a little while.”
“Not for long. He killed himself.”
“Terrible. Still, I’m sure you helped him.”
This is the final nail in the coffin. If anybody had any lingering feelings of remorse for Quin, they are now gone. He is a pervert – a sad, old man using his power in society to do harm to others.
Margot had found him to be an eccentric, fun person with a dark sense of humor. In reality, he has a darker heart than she had imagined. Some form of justice catches up to him through the way his family, friends, and the rest of society sees him.
I can see Carolina, her face stunned and desolate, aged by grief – the way she looks when she think I can’t see her, the way she looked last night, coming out of Lucia’s room [Quin’s daughter], her bright smile collapsing, then hardening as soon as she saw me.
The question that remains is this: does the punishment fit the crime? On one hand, Quin has lost the trust of his friends and family, is depicted as a social pariah or deviant, and has most certainly lost the prestige that he had gained over the years. Margot questions if he deserves to have lost it all (note that she even called one of the accusers a “little bitch”).
On the other hand, Quin didn’t lose it all. From what we know, there are no criminal charges, he simply shifted roles to a less high-profile job (surely maintaining a similar salary-level and internal influence), and has held onto his wife and child, albeit barely. If America’s outgoing President has taught us anything, it’s that with enough will-power, status, and influence, these sorts of allegations can be swept under the rug.
- Karen Carlson’s A Just Recompense review
A somewhat contraversial claim
My only qualm, which is much less with this piece than it is with liberal media more broadly, is that there tends to be an emphasis on middle and upper-class issues of microaggressions. These issues have found a resonant base in popular culture, both because they are serious issues and because they fit delicately within mainstream art.
Unequivocally, they are issues that need to be addressed. The issue I have, is that I have not seen a story about explicit, gender violence or sexual abuse in lower-class or minority communities in BASS or The New Yorker recently. I believe it’s because these voices are not proportionally represented in literary anthologies/magazines and they would be labeled as overtly political.
The liberal view is that any infringement on human rights must be immediately condemned, regardless of politics. I agree, but as is often the case with disenfranchised citizens in liberal democracies, the prioritization of resources are directed towards issues that achieve popular support and attention.
The issues facing minority communities with lower levels of media influence, e.g. not middle to upper-class whites, are simultaneously more severe and receive less attention. They do not fit the mold of delicate art that seems to grip BASS, and to a lesser extent, the fiction section of The New Yorker (note that they certainly go further than BASS, see The Winged Thing by Patricia Lockwood for example).
None of this is to downplay what an excellent story This Is Pleasure really is. Gaitskill’s writing is masterful, and her contemplation on workplace sexual harassment is very thoughtful.
I believe it’s important to acknowledge that it comes from a place of relative privilege (which Gaitskill is surely well-aware of) and to make sure our attention is not entirely directed towards microaggressions within corporate America, but distributed proportionally towards communities at greater risks of gender violence and severe oppression.
The problem is not the story itself. The problem is that publisher’s have chosen this story over others. It is a political statement, one that they are making in lieu of something that could be stronger and more representative of our diverse populace.
That’s my two cents, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter! Leave any of them below.