For our Marginalia web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite works of literature by way of a short piece of prose. This week, Joanna Pearson, whose story “Rome” appears in the Summer 2020 issue, examines a passage from “The Other Place” by Mary Gaitskill.
I think of Mary Gaitskill's “The Other Place,” as a ghost story even though there are no actual ghosts. From the start, there's a mounting dread—something's off with the narrator's son:
My son, Douglas, loves to play with toy guns. He is thirteen. He loves video games in which people get killed. He loves violence on TV, especially if it’s funny. How did this happen? The way everything does, of course. One thing follows another, naturally.
Naturally, he looks like me: shorter than average, with a fine build, hazel eyes, and light-brown hair. Like me, he has a speech impediment and a condition called “essential tremor” that causes involuntary hand movements, which make him look more fragile than he is. He hates reading, but he is bright. He is interested in crows because he heard on a nature show that they are one of the only species that are more intelligent than they need to be to survive. He does beautiful, precise drawings of crows.
—Mary Gaitskill, “The Other Place,” the New Yorker
The narrator recognizes in his son the same dark thirst for violence that he himself possesses. But the narrator has somehow managed to create a life with the patina of normalcy. He is a family man now, and the most successful real-estate agent in the Hudson Valley! (I love that detail.) His voyeurism, his awful longings are relegated to the imagined what-if, or, “an invisible world that I called ‘the other place.’”
There was a moment in the narrator’s past, however, when he sought to make “the other place” real. I won’t spoil things, but let’s just say the other place, in the form of a woman, finds him. This woman’s response to the narrator is so bleak, so startling, that she diverts him from his intended course of action.
The story is haunted not just by the memory of this chilling encounter, but also by the thin line that separates what does happen from what might have been. Gaitskill seems to understand there’s nothing so simple as pure evil; the creeping sicknesses that afflict us are far more insidious and complicated. And despite what revulsion we may feel as readers towards the narrator and his son and their brutal fantasies, Gaitskill offers, in the end, a devastating moment of paternal empathy. Sometimes our ghosts are not the past, but rather the shadow selves we must carry—selves that exist only in that other place.