Somebody With a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill
An uneven collection of essays, criticism and reviews, Mary Gaitskill’s Somebody With a Little Hammer is as frustrating as it is inspiring. Despite a handful of standout, excellent pieces, much of the work collected here feels unnecessary and unnecessarily reactionary.
Gaitskill appears to write criticism solely for the reader who wants continued engagement after completing a book. This is perfectly fine, but that introductory excitement (or cautionary foreboding) with which some critics dance is noticeably absent. She is thorough with her plot summaries, leaving only a few twists unspoken, but by assuming her readers are relatively familiar with the book she’s discussing she’s able to reach a deeper level of discourse by contextualizing the entirety of her subject as opposed to a spoiler-free preview. She’s a critic for the critics; she’s the afterword, cracking the door open to further investigation.
The trouble with this collection is that most of the works feel like assignments and commissions. This leaves the range of subjects covered in a large portion of Somebody With a Little Hammer up to her past editors and it conveys a tone of accommodation and obligation on Gaitskill’s part. The dark honesty of her prose has given Gaitskill a reputation as an unforgiving feminist writer, but this characteristic (however defining it my be) feels reduced and erroneously projected upon her after reading her joyless and acerbic takes on John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Gillian Flynn, and Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women. It’s as if a tone-deaf editor said “this one sounds edgy, let’s give it to Gaitskill. She loves that stuff, right?” Surprise, she doesn’t, at least not necessarily. She loves good writing far more than a familiar genre, and these books leave her (and us) disinterested and unfulfilled. Even though it’s fun to watch Gaitskill get punchy (and she can be quite blunt at times), these reviews feel more about the mismatch between book and critic and have little resonant value. “I’m supposedly sick and dark,” she writes, almost apologetically, before launching into a harsh seven pages of criticism about the supposedly sick and dark Gillian Flynn. She describes Gone Girl as being “as irritating as [she’d] imagined,” and the only reason she kept reading that “masterpiece of cuckoo clockwork” is because she bought it in hardcover and was stuck on a long train ride.
Gaitskill is also frequently tempted to correct. She recommends J.M. Barrie’s novel Peter Pan “to anyone who has seen only the Disney version,” excited to share how the novel “doesn’t condescend to young children, who (being human) know in their hearts every horrible thing that human beings are capable of, and every sadness that human life entails.” Her piece “Victims and Losers, A Love Story” on how the movie Secretary misses many of the points of her original short story is a strange and misguided defense. Similarly, “The Easiest Thing to Forget” is about how wrong Carl Wilson is in his writing about Céline Dion. In “Pictures of Lo,” Gaitskill corrects Gregor von Rezzori’s ecstatic claim that Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is the “only convincing love story of the century:”
“Although I find Rezzori’s words initially repellent and even a little smug, if you rewrote the sentence without using the words only and century, I have to agree with them.”
In addition to being a critic for critics, Gaitskill is often a critic of critics. But Gaitskill soars when she’s able to detach from all these distractions and write on something she is passionate about and believes in. Her essay on Bleak House is a triumph, her lengthy essay-memoir “Lost Cat” a heartbreaking conflict of class, family and parental love. Her autobiographical essay on the often self-imposed silencing of sexual abuse victims is a devastating narrative, compassionate but conflicted. A few short features on music are beautifully succinct: one in particular on Talking Heads’s “Remain in Light” is a powerful rendering of how music can define a person if they’re at a particularly formative point in their lives. The title essay on Chekhov is a marvel and the recurrent appearance of Nabokov throughout a few texts exemplifies the thin line between criticism and respect, and how those concepts inherently influence one another.
In the company of these strong essays, the remaining works in Somebody With a Little Hammer look particularly hollow, fatally tethered to other people’s voices. Her opinions are fine – and oftentimes fun, in a cruelly honest sort of way – but her ideas, independent of outside influence, can lead to something great when she lets them.