Tap, Tap, Tap: Somebody with a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill

Photo by Maciej Kowalski

What I love about Mary Gaitskill is that she somehow managed to never be corrupted by, I mean, learn, the writer’s code of conduct.

There are many things you’re not supposed to do, as a writer.

For one, you’re not supposed to write a long personal essay about the grief you suffered over a runaway cat.

Everybody knows that.

My first creative writing teacher handed out a list of rules concerning subject matter we weren’t allowed to write about: The two I remember were no dead grandparents and no dead pets.

To be fair, part of the agony of losing a pet who runs away is that you can never necessarily say they’re dead. Up until a point, you may just not know.

Also to be fair, this essay, “Lost Cat,” which appears in Gaitskill’s latest book, the essay collection Somebody with a Little Hammer, isn’t entirely about the cat. It’s an exploration of other feelings and losses that she’s aware of having projected onto the disappearance of Gattino, the kitten she spontaneously adopted in Italy, then lost months later when he ran away from home.

In a way, though, it’s still very much a heartbreaking story about a runaway kitten who you know is never found from the beginning. There are no surprises worked in, and no apologies.

While some of Gaitskill’s reputation is threaded around her willingness to write about taboo sexual and relationship behavior, I’ve always felt that her way of tackling subject matter typically considered “sentimental” by nature has been riskier.

From a certain social and artistic point of view, writing a story about a girl whose boss spanks her (“Secretary”) seems less dangerous than writing a serious, non-YA novel about a girl’s special connection with a horse (The Mare) or ending an atypical but genuine love story with the words “And he did” (“The Blanket”) unironically. When I read works like this and “Lost Cat,” I feel like I’m watching someone walk a tightrope, and questioning the strength of it.

In Somebody with a Little Hammer, not only does the rope remain intact, but we get a chance to examine its makeup. While the book includes essays compiled from over a period of years that have appeared in a variety of publications, it’s unlikely that the average fan of Gaitskill’s work will have managed to read most of them, as the span of years and the variety of publications is so considerable. Gathered together, they give us a peek at her work and life outside of and adjacent to her fiction.

In addition to ruminations on her lost cat, the collection includes writing on the movie Secretary (based on her short story), Céline Dion, Linda Lovelace, a Talking Heads song, date rape, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Bitch and her own experience hitting her head on a bridge in Russia—subjects you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in the same book but which don’t always seem entirely incongruous, either.

Many of the essays are book reviews of some kind, some more straightforward than others. I enjoy reading Gaitskill’s thoughts on general phenomena and philosophical issues inspired by her own life, and so share some of the frustration expressed in Sariah Dorbin’s piece in the LA Review of Books: Some of the reviews don’t exactly measure up, and I wanted more personal essays. However, I imagine that others like me, who enjoy reading nearly anything Gaitskill writes at least once, will find this book to be no exception.

As a quick aside, here’s the story of my first encounter with Mary Gaitskill’s work.

Her review of Melanie Thernstrom’s Halfway Heaven, a piece that didn’t make it into Somebody with a Little Hammer but is available to read in full on Salon, demonstrates her willingness to go far beyond your average book review in its condemnation of the tendency to oversimplify mental health issues and criminal behavior. The degree to which she applies this one book to the bigger picture could be considered inappropriate for a review. However, it shows off the main characteristic that I love in her writing in general: a resolve to see things through completely, a resolve that seems to be motivated not by flashy taboo-breaking but a commitment to moral completeness.

So while I do wish the above piece and more like it had appeared in Somebody with a Little Hammer, and while I wish the collection seemed more cohesive and polished as a whole, the book provides a kind of blueprint-glimpse at the various gears of Gaitskill’s thought process. This means both exciting geek-fodder for fans of her work or enterprising book reviewers and pleasurable thought-bites for anyone who can appreciate an essay that occasionally gets smacked in the head with a curve ball it throws at itself.

While Somebody with a Little Hammer is scattered with smaller and more straightforward book reviews, the first essay, “A Lot of Exploding Heads,” is a different kind of piece about the Book of Revelation that is in itself sort of a book review, but also sort of a personal narrative, but also…sort of a book review. My instinct for congruity almost makes me wish the collection were entirely made up of book reviews of some kind or another—some sticking to formula and others going delightfully off the rails.

Beyond that instinct, though, I enjoy seeing the different textures and nuances of Gaitskill’s writing, and I respect the way she often throws herself and her feelings into a subject, mercilessly examining her own reactions until she’s come full circle. In this way, her essays remind me of comedian Marc Maron’s work: On his WTF podcast, he frequently chimes in with his personal experiences when interviewing someone. In his stand-up, he sometimes examines an angry, adamant opinion of his own and ultimately finds humor in its fallibility.

In the beginning of her essay on Carl Wilson’s book Let’s Talk About Love, which is among other things about how much some people hate(d) Céline Dion, Gaitskill writes “Bitch, excuse me?” in response to an over-the-top criticism of Dion. Gaitskill’s extended response to the public skewering of the singer—which in this case centers around criticism of Dion’s crying about the victims of Hurricane Katrina—is both humane and hilarious, but towards the end of the essay she admits to the same “Bitch, excuse me?” coming home to roost when she catches herself spewing a stream of vitriol about a writer she dislikes.

Gaitskill therefore not only defends Dion’s public vulnerability but exposes her own vulnerabilities as a writer and critic. In an age when both self-examination and any expressions of emotion other than tightly-controlled, justified anger are often seen as weakness and can damage the credibility of any person, Gaitskill deftly mixes the two into a powerful cocktail.

The phrase “somebody with a little hammer” is taken from the Chekhov story “Gooseberries.” The full sentence states that there should be somebody knocking with a little hammer at the door of “every happy, contented man” to make him aware of the suffering of others and to remind him of his own eventual misfortune, or of life showing its “claws.” I’m not sure if this title choice, given its original context, sets the right tone for the collection. It’s such a varied collection, after all, and I don’t think a reminder of misfortune is necessarily the strongest common thread running through it.

Divorced from its original context, however, it seems appropriate. Somebody with a Little Hammer doesn’t only send out reminder taps to the oblivious—it also turns around and deconstructs whole systems of thought with its harmless-looking, deceptively effective little claw.