Picks and Pans Review: Two Girls, Fat and Thin
With her first novel, Gaitskill matches the neat trick she pulled off in her 1988 debut short-story collection, Bad Behavior: She writes with admirable skill and acuity about oddball types in aberrant situations, some aberrant enough to make your skin crawl.
In Gaitskill's bare-light bulb view of the world, or, more precisely, in the lives of thin Justine and fat Dorothy, incest, sadomasochistic sex and joining cults are all just part of growing up.
Justine and Dorothy's lives intersect when Justine, a free-lance journalist, begins researching a story about Dorothy and other followers of a cult novelist, the late Anna Granite (read Ayn Rand). Why Anna Granite followers? "Justine was morbidly attracted to obsessions, particularly the useless, embarrassing obsessions of the thwarted. She could not help but be drawn to the spectacle of flesh-and-blood humans forming their lives in conjunction with the shadows invented by a mediocre novelist."
For anyone at all familiar with Rand's libertarian bent, articulated at length in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead (satirized here as The Gods Disdained and The Bulwark), Gaitskill's take on Granite will be wickedly funny. As Dorothy worshipfully explains. Granite writes "about the struggle of a few isolated, superior people to ward off the attacks of the mean-minded majority as they created all the beautiful, important things in the world while having incredible sex with each other."
Incredible sex is exactly what neither of Gaitskill's characters has. Dorothy, molested by her father during adolescence, has withdrawn from the sexual world. Justine, whose teenage forays into sex were all disturbingly violent, as an adult finds herself in a sadomasochistic affair, which Gaitskill outlines in sordid and graphic detail.
The irony, of course, is that whereas Justine, the attractive product of a suburban upbringing, would seem to have the Granite-approved virtues, while Dorothy, the lower-class slob, is the antithesis of a Granite heroine, it is in the end Dorothy who comes to the rescue of Justine. That this will happen becomes a tad obvious about three quarters of the way through the novel—you can almost see Gaitskill hunched over her parallel structure charts—but does not interfere with a reader's continuing interest in these disturbing characters.
Two Girls surely marks Gaitskill as a writer of distinction—warped, maybe, but distinctive. (Poseidon. $18.95)