Mary Gaitskill is no stranger to feminist debates. Her writing does not evoke comfort nor a sense of good versus evil; she complicates such binaries, as literature should. This Is Pleasure is no exception. Published in the New Yorker in July 2019, the novella follows protagonist Margot Berland, “editor of Healing the Slut Within,” and the #MeToo-ed Quin, an editor in NYC publishing. The story begins in Margot’s point of view:
I’d known Quin for maybe five years when he told me this story—really not even a story, more like an anecdote… [he believed] he could know what [people] most wanted to hear or, rather, what they would most respond to. He was a little conceited about these supposed special abilities, and that was how the story began.
The novella centers around Quin and his “special abilities,” creating a character study of a man who views the world both as a judicious mentor and voyeur. His character perceives interactions at a distance, absent of emotion, while simultaneously reaching for others’ most intimate thoughts with questions like, “Don’t you agree that sex is at the core of personality?” He pushes his interactions to the edge of discomfort and harassment, and, eventually and unknowingly, topples over.
Quin proposes this question to one of his accusers, pre-accusation: a twenty-four-year-old whom Quin first describes by her appearance and “sexless style.” Though he compliments her “unexpected spunk,” her personality comes second to her appearance, which, Quin claims, she hasn’t fully maximized. When she changes her hairstyle according to Quin’s suggestions, he notes “her appearance improved by at least three points.” This observation exemplifies Quin’s attitude toward women: he believes they have positive traits locked away, and only he can help them access their full potential. These women need him, he thinks, and he acts as if he’s bestowing grace upon them. “As if I were a magician,” he says of another young woman, “she listened to me tell her about herself: what she was like, what she needed, what she needed to correct.” Readers may rightly find his attitude patronizing and infantilizing, yet it is Quin’s sincerity that complicates the matter. He thinks of himself as more than a mentor—a guardian angel or fairy godmother, perhaps—as well as someone who creates friendships by “going up to the very line of acceptability and not crossing it.” He doesn’t believe he’s crossed any lines. He believes he’s better than other men, that “most people are starved for perceptive questions, and the chance to discover their own thoughts. This is especially true of young women, who are expected to listen attentively to one dull, self-obsessed man after another.” Ultimately, Quin thinks he is helping these women.
While Quin’s character oscillates from a mentor to a manipulator who views others only as puppets and entertainment, Margot can’t help but feel conflicted by their friendship, which is best captured by her description of Quin’s essence: “Grotesque, but at the same time paired with such peculiar, delectating joy.” Margot recounts with fondness the beginning of their friendship. She traces the relationship back to a time when she was desperate and alone, and Quin was kind to her. This is not to say that compassion excuses someone’s actions. Following the accusations, Quin grapples with the consequences of his behavior, while Margot must reconcile both her anger and love for her friend, and her feelings of complicity. With both Quin and Margot, Gaitskill makes readers feel for characters they maybe otherwise wouldn’t. Because the novella isn’t about the accusers so much as it is about the people surrounding the accused, This is Pleasure is a subtle and honest account of muddled empathies and radical compassion, and asks of readers: What can we forgive? What should we forgive? And, how should we forgive?
While This Is Pleasure joins #MeToo era literature such as Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” and Veronica Raimo’s The Girl at the Door, Gaitskill’s novella offers complicated views of a woman from a different generation. Margot’s “professional reputation” was created by “a book of charming stories about masochistic women,” in much the same way Gaitskill’s was created by her story collection Bad Behavior. This detail characterizes Margot as a woman who champions women’s sexual liberation, while also placing her in a position of power as a New York City editor, like Quin. When Quin tries touching Margot between the legs, she yells no; the younger women he touches say nothing and go along with it. Margot, an older woman of equal power, vocalizes her disinterest, while Quin’s accusers, young women with less power than him, fear what having a voice might cost them. But Margot’s character isn’t one-dimensional. She also represents the complicated areas of #MeToo: she’s full of questions and empathy toward both the victims and the accused; she wonders if Quin’s punishment outweighs his crime, and if there’s such a thing as societal forgiveness following such actions.
Margot’s character is also complicated by her own traumatic sexual history. When reading this late section of the novella, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a section from Gaitskill’s essay “On Not Being a Victim,” an piece that originally ran in Harper’s about sex and date rape (and which was later renamed “The Trouble with Following the Rules”): “I don’t think he had any idea how unwilling I was—the cultural unfamiliarity cut both ways… My bad time was made worse by his extreme gentleness; he was obviously trying very hard to please me, which, for reasons I didn’t understand, broke my heart.” Gaitskill recalls her experience—one “that could be described as acquaintance rape”—with such care and fine examination, stressing the complicated nature of an unfortunate situation involving two human beings.
Like Gaitskill, Margot recalls her own trauma—being assaulted as a child—with a sense of grief for both herself and the perpetrator. This deep dive into Margot’s psyche helps us better understand her devotion to Quin. We see society talking around her, implicating her: “Then there’s the women trying to defend these creeps… Them I feel sorry for. Because I can’t imagine what their lives have been like.” Readers can’t help but empathize with Margot. Given her past and the resulting lingering feelings of complicity and guilt, the complicated nature of her character deepens. When Margot overhears the comment above said by colleagues, she thinks: “Inside I stayed angry. At the same time, I still loved [Quin]. I still leaned on him for support and counsel. I was like the women who didn’t stop him and who acted like his friends even as they grew angrier and angrier.” Readers understand that Margot is self-aware and multifaceted, and, ultimately, contradicts herself. She sees herself as both Quin’s friend and one of the many women he has manipulated, and feels pain for both.
The novella alternates between Margot’s and Quin’s first-person perspectives, though, at times, the narrations seem intentionally conflated. The two voices reflect one another, showing how similarly the two characters understand the world, underlining the gap between their perception of social norms and the rapidly changing culture around them. The two both believe Quin hasn’t crossed a line that warrants his punishment, i.e. the loss of his job and the implosion of his world. This is not to say Margot doesn’t think Quin crossed any line, or that she condones Quin’s behavior or “friendships.” She notes, “It was the same conversation, over and over: I lectured about respect and boundaries; he wondered how someone could be so ‘precious’ about herself and declared that he would never refuse the needs of a friend.” Though she humors Quin, Margot sees Quin’s “needs,” i.e. his prying into the intimate details of others’ lives, as strange, if not inappropriate. When talking about the legal case being brought against him, Margot tells Quin, “Honestly, I can understand why she’s mad,” and, “You treat people like entertainment… You joke and you prod just to see which way they’ll jump and how far. You pick at their hurt spots. You delectate pain.”
Quin, too, must make sense of his behavior and the consequences. He tells Margot:
I don’t want to say, “I don’t understand.” That’s weak and whining. And besides, I do understand… 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.
While his realization may sound empathetic towards his accusers, Quin’s perspective relies more on philosophical reasoning rather than emotional reality. Throughout the novella, Gaitskill finely creates a divide between Quin’s self-perception and how readers view him. In the final sections, Quin thinks about the women of his past, wondering, “if those girls were girls now, would they describe themselves as ‘assaulted’ if someone put his hand on their knee? Would they say that they were too ‘frozen’ in dismay to stop him?” The paragraph breaks into a following thought: “What a different story we told about ourselves then. How aware we were that it was a story.”
Quin is both aware and unaware of his wrongdoings; he’s shaped reality to fit his desired narrative because that story follows the only social rules he’s known. “I am on the ground and bleeding, but I will stand up again,” he thinks. Gaitskill doesn’t ask that readers agree with Quin or Margot’s perspectives, but that readers put judgments aside and see these characters as complicated people who feel both pleasure and pain; people who, because of lived experiences, blur the line between the two. How do we forgive such people?
In a 2019 interview with Lauren LeBlanc of the Observer, Mary Gaitskill says,
I heard that Plácido Domingo was banned and can’t perform at the Met now. I don’t know what they did, actually. But to me, in an ideal world, he would be sat down with everybody there and people would actually say, “We love you, we revere you, we’d love to have you singing here. But you can’t treat people this way. These young women adore you. They love you. You’re taking advantage of their love. That’s wrong. It’s really deeply wrong. Whoever you are, you cannot do this. And if you keep doing it, you can’t be here anymore.”
Rather than practice social exiling, Gaitskill believes in having discussions and correcting the behavior of those who do wrong. “I’m not sure how great it is to make an issue of humiliating people for the rest of their life,” she says. “Was it Audre Lorde, I think, who said ‘You don’t destroy the master’s home by using the master’s tools?’” In This Is Pleasure, Gaitskill presents a complicated situation, and asks readers not to read through an ideological lens but instead through an empathetic and compassionate one.