Simply as a commodity, “This Is Pleasure” represents a shift. But more importantly, its content marks a transition in cultural mores, as it is a sympathetic fictional portrait, created by a woman, of a man who has been charged with #MeToo violations.
Perhaps the fact that the author is female is unsurprising, since a male writer who feels ambivalent about #MeToo might not get very far. Mary Gaitskill, on the other hand, who practically invented female sexual agency in her 1988 debut collection, “Bad Behavior,” with its grad student prostitutes and moody sadomasochism, is just the person to take on the task of questioning #MeToo’s harasser vs. victim scenarios in a fictional context.
Gaitskill’s book arrives as some women writers have begun to open the possibility of a #MeToo course correction — one that allows for a more nuanced look at sexual trespasses. In an article published in the New Yorker the same month as Gaitskill’s novella, Jane Mayer made a case for the innocence of Sen. Al Franken. In the memoir “Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl,” Jeannie Vanasco gives voice to a man who raped her when she was a teenager (even as a Greek chorus of millennial friends on the sidelines squawks in protest.) On the Showtime series “The Affair” — co-created by Sarah Treem — a spurned woman comes to her ex-husband’s defense after his indiscretions become fodder for a scathing #MeToo magazine article.
Mary Gaitskill’s novel is set in an office, an arena where #MeToo has completely changed the culture, and that change has slammed into her protagonist like a tidal wave, leveling his life. Quin Saunders is the longtime head of a respected publishing imprint. A member of the generation for whom flirtation was an accepted part of life at work, he has had close relationships with the women in his office for decades. He is the proverbial man who loves women — he buys them lunch, takes them shopping, answers endless phone calls and emails seeking advice. Unlike other men, he is deeply curious about their inner lives, asks many questions, listens to the answers for hours on end. Some of these conversations are about sex, which is his favorite topic. For example, an office friend of 11 years confided she had a thing for spanking. In reply, he sent her a clip of John Wayne spanking an actress in an old western.
Now that very friend has accused him of misconduct in an “endlessly circulating online petition.” Half the women in his office have signed it, as well as an author whose first book he published, and others. These women have gotten him fired, are seeking damages and have threatened to boycott any future employer. Among the horrifying offenses listed in the media coverage of the situation: He sent a woman who was working for him a video of a man spanking a woman.
Quin tells his story in alternating sections with his good friend Margot. Quin and Margot met when he interviewed her for a job she didn’t get, then bonded on a later encounter; she has since become a publishing-world force herself. Like Quin, Margot came of age when sexy office friendships could be seen as fun for both parties. Men who went too far were slapped down — as she did to Quin when he once tried to stick his hand up her skirt. He accepted the rebuff and went on to become a mainstay of her life. She and her husband make fun of his goofy perverted attitudes, but Quin is the one she calls in all her darkest hours. “Over days and weeks and months, he helped me feel that I was part of humanity, and with his kindness alone; it was his silliness, his humor, his dirtiness that rekindled my spirit.” His dirtiness can cut both ways, it seems.
Though she may have lost patience with his impolitic behavior, Margot makes the case for her friend’s essential goodness with eloquence and in detail. Quin loves his wife and daughter; he is charming and attractive — a tall, slim Brit who wears his long brown hair falling over his brow and a perennial silk scarf around his neck. To Margot, his accusers are not blameless victims. “Women are like horses,” she says. “They want to be led. They want to be led but they also want to be respected. . . . If you don’t respect them, they will throw you off and prance around the paddock while you lie bleeding.”
Quin indeed lies bleeding. Stripped of his career, humiliated, his wife beyond furious. “This is the end of men like me,” he says.
Good riddance, some readers will say. But others will align with Margot’s — and Gaitskill’s — defense of the character. As the author put it in an interview, “He’s someone who, for all his life, has acted in a way that’s now called ‘harassment,’ and not only was it tolerated but he did very well, is a great success, socially and professionally. . . . [T]o behave as if he were a monster, equivalent to a rapist, and to circulate petitions threatening to boycott anyone who would dare to hire him, to create a situation where he can’t work — that is, to me, absurd and even cruel.”
Whether you agree or disagree, it is time to have these conversations, to explore the nuances, to decide whether we have gone too far. Maybe that’s why “This Is Pleasure” has been packaged as a gift book. Give it to someone you want to talk to.
Marion Winik, a professor at the University of Baltimore, is the author of numerous books, including “First Comes Love,” “The Lunch-Box Chronicles” and, most recently, “The Big Book of the Dead.”