Somebody With a Little Hammer

Do not read while drinking. I offer this advice mostly because it would be impossible, I think, to dig through Mary Gaitskill’s essays in Somebody with a Little Hammer under the influence.

This is because they are thick and heavy and your brain is required to process the details. Even quite sober I skipped a couple essays here or there because sometimes writing, no matter how skilled, lacks the relevancy to make it appear truly good and insightful. It slips into boring irrelevance and before you know it you’ve re-read the same page over and over and still have no idea what is going on. Having never read Updike himself, I can hardly be faulted for not wanting to read other people writing about him.

Somebody with a Little Hammer is a compilation of Gaitskill’s previous work and includes reviews of books (including Lolita) and music. She also writes personal essays not linked to other people’s work and she makes some very good points about feminism, social norms and learning to understand what it is you want. And thinking for yourself.

In ‘The Trouble with Following the Rules’, after an unclear sexual encounter she didn’t quite know how to process, she writes: “Since I had only learned how to follow rules or social codes that were somehow more important than I was, I didn’t know what to do in a situation where no rules obtained and that required me to speak up on my own behalf. I had never been taught that my behalf mattered. And so I felt helpless, even victimized, without knowing why.”

She explores why rules exist and how they are so often not explained in a way that makes sense or allows us to determine if we need the rules at all.

“If I had been brought up to reach my own conclusions about which rules were congruent with my particular experience of the world, those rules would’ve had more meaning for me. Instead, I was usually given a set of static pronouncements. For example, when I was thirteen, I was told by my mother that I couldn’t wear a short skirt because “nice girls don’t wear short skirts above the knee.” I countered, of course, by saying that my friend Patty worse skirts above the knee. “Patty is not a nice girl,” replied my mother. But Patty was nice. My mother is a very intelligent and sensitive person, but it didn’t occur to her to define what she mean by “nice and what “nice” had to do with skirt length…”

It’s all eminently reasonable. We should all think so critically of the directions we’re spoon-fed from childhood right into adulthood. Platitudes haven’t quite gotten us far enough.

Mary Gaitskill was at Events 78 (The Stuff of Life), 85 (Mary Gaitskill in Conversation with Eleanor Wachtel) and 92 (The Afternoon Tea) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.

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