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“Literature is not a realm for politeness.” – Mary Gaitskill
This short, perspicacious, juicy piece of literature is the antithesis of “politeness” and penetrates the murky realm of human sexuality, asking if there are unchallenged sexual truths lurking between male harassers and female victims, not visible in the glaring lights of the MeToo era. Gaitskill, skillfully uses fiction to flirt with the reality of sexual flirting.
The book is a speed-bump for the MeToo movement. Not a stop sign, not an apology, just a wait-a-minute question: Ladies, are we totally okay with this scorched-earth suing of flirtatious men? Or are we women somewhat complicit, even subconsciously, in the sexual dance that precedes the harassment? Which leads to charges that usurp the very thing we not only love in men, but need in order to fulfill our Darwinian role in natural selection?
Pleasure is evolutionary
Men are male peacocks, genetically designed and created to parade their wares, attract females and flirt. Flirting is part of the dance. Essential – to women. Darwin told us that more than a 150 years ago and this book illustrates it, indelibly.
This Is Pleasure flirts with the reality of who we are as men and women, exposing for all to see, the beauty in male flirtatiousness, including predatory tendencies and a woman’s need to be complicit. The crisp, clear, natural dialogue of the two protagonists just might make a few women think twice before before signing onto the next office petition charging a man of sexual harassment.
Mary Gaitskill creates a human space for her characters – and her readers – that is familiar and recognizable and yet uncomfortable, even though we have all experienced and participated in the smokey, beguiling, and confusing space between flirting and harassment. And for the most part, enjoyed it. As the two protagonists, Quin and Margot surmise, it’s what we do … isn’t it?
“You treat people like entertainment,” she said. “You joke and you prod just to see which way they’ll jump and how far. You pick at their hurt spots. You delectate pain. It doesn’t sound like this girl has a case legally, but, honestly, I can understand why she’s mad. You didn’t touch her, did you? I mean, sexually?” – Margot
Quin and Margot (friends without the benefits), exude the social reality of the MeToo movement, he as a fired editor, threatened with a sexual harassment lawsuit and she as his longtime friend. In their discourse and recollections, they debate the confusion, anger, suffering and moral dilemma of men and women caught in the no-man’s land of sexual harassment (the pun: no man wants to get caught in that undefined territory of fuzzy boundaries and muddy emotions between a man and a woman). That was Quin’s territory and he got caught in it, and Margot seemed to be one of only a few women who understood him and the complicity of women “playing” in the same space.
“You are so much stronger now! You speak straight from the clit!”– Q
It’s complicated – the divide between cultural morality and sexual reality – but Gaitskill unravels the layers of emotions in a neatly distilled style, with the alternating voices of Quin and Margot weaving the reader through the mushy, male-female swamp between”nice to meet you” and “let’s have sex.” The story, like life, is filled with lots of talk about sex but not much sex because the author wants us to peer into the intrigue of the lush, sensuous, sexual acting before the sex, not the act of sex. The reality is that the talk, the looks, the touches are all about sex.
“Don’t you agree that sex is at the core of personality?” – Q
The talkers don’t do and the doers don’t talk
Quin is a talker, a charmer, a flirt, diving into and divulging sexual fantasies, playing with women’s imagination and sexual truths, but, unless the woman consents, no sex. One time, he gently, sensuously traces a young girls nipple with his finger. That’s all. The girl didn’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but in the silence the consent in her eyes is deeply obvious. And the sex in the washroom was consensual. But these women still signed the petition against him. ‘Why?’ is the book’s lament.
I reached out and touched her breast, circling the tip with my finger. Neither of us spoke. – Q
Margot tells us that some people feel sorry for Quin. One guy says, “It’s a travesty …his life is ruined because an ass got pinched.” But the dominant opinion is that he “got what he deserved.” In his defense, Margot claims, “Quin isn’t ‘like’ any other man I have met. I don’t know any other man as comical and strangely lewd. I don’t know any other man who would kneel on the floor of a restaurant and try to kiss your feet just to be whimsical.”
Women are like horses. They want to be led. They want to be led, but they also want to be respected. You have to earn it, every time. And they are as strong as fuck. If you don’t respect them, they will throw you off and prance around the paddock while you lie there bleeding. That’s what I think. – Q
The story is not about harassment and a lawsuit, it’s about a man and a woman, friends, living and working in the same boggy, field of dreams and trying to understand the truth of sexual attraction and desire.
Near the end of much rationalization, Quin’s effort to understand is reflected in these two quotes:
“The best story is one that reveals a truth, like something you see and understand in a dream but forget as soon as you wake up. The girl who bent over the toilet for me so long ago—she was acting out a truth that she then ran from, and her running was also true.” – Q
“This is the end of men like me.” – Q
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