Mary Gaitskill’s fiction is full of cats – stray kittens wandering in and out of people’s lives, little white cats seen briefly from the window of a passing car, cats remembered from childhood, cats that never really existed but who are summoned up in conversation as a way for characters to find something to say to one another. Women and children are often compared to cats, in her stories. Men are too, although if a man is closely associated with an animal in a Gaitskill story, that animal is more likely to be a dog or a horse (a notable exception is the overconfident academic in ‘Stuff’, who the narrator describes as having ‘gone to seed in the manner of an old cat who knows where to find the food dish’).
Cats are everywhere in Gaitskill’s work, once you start looking for them. In ‘Because they wanted to’, the title story from the 1997 collection recently reissued by Penguin, a girl named Elise finds herself babysitting three small children whose mother might just have abandoned them. The story is told almost entirely from Elise’s point of view: she is something of a lost cat herself, too dazed by her own precarious circumstances to be able to successfully evaluate the circumstances of others, or really even to notice them. She sees the ad for a babysitter on a noticeboard at the STD clinic (it’s written on notepaper printed with pictures of cats), and takes on the job, despite having no experience with children and no guarantee that she’ll get paid. Elise has run away from home, or at least wandered away from it, and the babysitting job seems at first like some sort of solution – a way of being less lost, of being part of someone else’s team. It’s not really like that though. The mother and her children are just as lost as she is; like Elise, they’ve run out of the glue that holds an ordinary life together.
Struggling to find something to say to the children, who are scared and confused and already wondering when their mother will come back, Elise asks them if they like animals. They start to tell her about the dog they’ve left back home, presumably with the abusive father their mother has fled from, but Elise is not really listening, and starts to tell them about her family’s cat, an abandoned kitten called Blue who was rescued by her older brother after he found it standing up to a vicious dog – ‘he arched his back and spat and the dog was so surprised he just stopped’. The cat in Elise’s story knows how to get what it needs. It’s brave, and probably a good role model for three little kids who appear to be on the verge of being abandoned themselves. It’s also a product of Elise’s imagination – the real Blue is ‘an expensive Persian cat from a Breeder’, a present from Elise’s emotionally unstable father to his brittle new wife. The real Blue means nothing to Elise, and the nice brother who rescued him in the story is not actually very nice at all. The story Elise tells, which comes from a world where being brave pays off and where the strong take care of the vulnerable, has very little in common with the world as the characters in ‘Because they wanted to’ know it. No one really seems to be taking care of anyone else, being brave gets you slapped, and being little makes you a target. Elise is not very good with children, and the story of the imaginary cat is the closest she is able to get to encouraging or consoling them.
Animals often play this role in Gaitskill’s stories, which are full of people who aren’t sure of how they want to be treated, or of how they should be treating others. They are clarifying, anchoring presences in her work. They tend to appear or be invoked in moments when a character appears to be on the verge of getting a grip on the situation, or else in (usually short-lived) moments of contentment. In ‘The Blanket’, a man realises he’s in love with the older woman he’s having an affair with after he sees a cat in a field. He phones her to tell her so: ‘I had to tell you this. When we were driving through Oregon we went past this cornfield, and I was just staring at it and I saw this little white cat walking between the rows. It so much made me think of you. The way it walked was so intrepid and fine.’ The woman understands this declaration for what it is: ‘He heard a quick intake of breath, followed by a long, tremulous silence.’ The man deals with his emotions by taking a ‘long, ecstatic drink of grape pop.’ In the hands of a lesser writer, the moment would seem ridiculous, all out of odds with the emotional significance assigned to it. One of Gaitskill’s talents is to lean into tremulous absurdity. She knows that we are often moved by things that don’t make sense, and in fact that their not making sense is part of what moves us. She is interested in the moments and feelings that cannot be subsumed into a wider narrative, but which linger vividly in the memory, taking up more space than you’d think – a little white cat walking through a field, a kitten arching its tiny back, a bright blue marble rolling across a wooden floor.
In ‘Acceptance Journey’, published in the New Yorker in 2018, a woman, Carol, watches a video which shows a lion who’d been rescued as a cub ‘ecstatically embracing his rescuer and rubbing against him like a cat’ (all sorts of things remind Gaitskill’s characters of cats, apparently – even bigger cats). In the same paragraph, Carol reflects without rancour on her failed marriage to a helpless life coach, and identifies the video as the turning point. She’d watched it in the days following a dream where she herself had been ecstatically embraced by a lion. ‘After the dream,’ Carol thinks, ‘the video had seemed to her like a sign, a sign that plainly said, If Lloyd can just quit his job and do what he wants, then I should do what I want, too.’
The answer to the question of what she wants to do is never fully articulated. Like many of Gaitskill’s characters, Carol is often governed by wordless impulses no less powerful for her unwillingness to put a name to them. She is both aimless and full of purpose. She drinks a bit too much, exercises absentmindedly with her hula hoop, walks around her neighbourhood ‘feeling her body shifting tectonically under her brain’. She strikes up a friendship with the family across the road and begins writing letters to one of the children in the voice of the Grinch. When a marriage counsellor asks her where she sees herself in five years’ time (Lloyd, heartbreakingly, says that he wants them to ‘own a house with a guest room and two bathrooms. I want dogs and maybe a horse. I want us to live securely with our animals’), she gets up and dances around the office, ‘gyrating her hips, singing a wordless song.’
Again, it’s difficult to name another writer who could pull this off, or who would even think to try. You can’t just have a character realise that it’s time to leave her husband after watching a sexy video of a lion, surely. You can’t just have them get up and dance around the room in response to a perfectly valid question, and you can’t just have the ability to present these moments as at once absurd and completely understandable. You can’t just make a character’s private and specific strangeness so recognisable like that, so that your reader has no choice but to reflect on how her own private and specific strangeness is perceived by the people around her.
Gaitskill’s fiction has always had this effect on me, where a nerdy indignation at watching someone blithely ignore what I had understood the rules to be turns into exhilaration. It used to take me longer to rally from the nerdy indignation phase – reading Gaitskill’s stories in my twenties I would sometimes find myself getting actually furious. I believed at the time that this was due to my own (entirely imaginary) capacity for restraint and delicacy of feeling, that there was something coarse about her occasionally merciless honesty, that it is not always necessary in this life to go around picking up rocks and staring intently at the white bugs wriggling around underneath them. We all know the bugs are there – what is the point of bringing them to everyone’s attention? I did actually believe this at one time. Now I think that her stories made me angry because they are undeceived. It’s hard to read a writer who is undeceived without feeling yourself exposed, and I didn’t like that at all.
‘Lost Cat’, her book-length essay recently released by Daunt, is similarly exhilarating, and similarly undeceived. I can’t imagine what I would have made of it if I’d read it in my twenties – maybe I would have exploded, or died. It’s one of the most moving things I have ever read, in a way that I struggle to articulate. This is perhaps a fitting response to a piece of writing that is, in some ways, about the struggle to understand what moves us and why, but it doesn’t make it any easier to write about. The first time I read it I cried so much I had to plunge my face into a basin of cold water for several minutes. Every time I started trying to write about it, or even to try and explain why I was not doing a very good job of writing about it, I would feel the horizontal direction of the tears gathering behind my eyes even as I told myself that it was ridiculous to allow myself to be made so inconsolable over a book-length essay about a gallant little lost cat when there were so many other things currently worth crying about. I am not one of those people who freaks out when the dog dies in the movie. I have visited the website ‘Does The Dog Die’ only out of a scornful anthropological interest. Still, I couldn’t write or think about ‘Lost Cat’ without losing my composure, and so I left it alone for a while.
When I returned to it a few months later I was surprised by how badly I’d remembered the story. I’d remembered that it was about the loss of her little cat, Gattino, as well as her relationship with two children, Christopher and Maxiel, who she had met through the Fresh Air Fund, as well as her relationship with her strange, difficult father, who had suffered many losses of his own. I remembered all that very well, and was struck by many of the same sentences I had underlined the first time round (‘Who decides which deaths are tragic and which are not? Who decides what is big and what is little? Is it a matter of numbers or physical mass or intelligence? If you are a little creature or a little person dying alone and in pain, you may not remember or know that you are little’).
I’d got all that, but what about the bit where she spends hours on the phone to her mother crying over having to put down a beloved family cat? What about all the descriptions of grief crawling through the rooms of her childhood home, of long telephone conversations where neither she nor her mother could speak and so just sat there blowing their noses at each other? Rereading it, I was surprised to find that there was nothing in there about her mother at all. Nothing about a sweet old grey cat slinking round the house, his bony shoulder blades moving up and down under his fur like little pistons. A small cheetah with flat ears and a stoical disposition, who used to let my younger brother drape him around his neck when we were children. They’d just walk around the house like that. Nothing about long arguments over how we needed to allow this sweet old cat to stop being alive, or about the fifteen to twenty minutes of mutual nose blowing that followed each argument, or all the things we weren’t crying about as we cried about the cat. It’s not that I actually believed that Mary Gaitskill had written a memoir that included my own family’s very ordinary experience of having to put our cat to sleep after he’d had a long and happy life. It’s more that until I read ‘Lost Cat’, I have never had a place to put that memory, never been able to account for how sad I was, and so I had left it alone for a while. All this is to say that ‘Lost Cat’ is about disproportionate feeling, about the futility of attempting to disentangle appropriate emotional responses from inappropriate ones, as if the one doesn’t bleed into the other, as if apparently invalid feelings can’t have shattering effects. As if knowing you’re doing something for the wrong reason stops you from doing it.
Throughout ‘Lost Cat’, Gaitskill returns again and again to the purported difference between invalid feelings and ‘real’ ones, showing how the one can hide within the other. At times, the essay has a revelatory air, as if it is surprised by what it has uncovered. Always unsparing with herself, she recounts the story of her relationship with the children as she describes her sadness at the loss of her cat, balancing ‘the big idea of tragedy’ with ‘the smallness and tenderness of this bright, lively creature.’ The sections concerning the children are almost intolerably sad, so that it is a relief to return to the cat. The wonder of ‘Lost Cat’ is in Gaitskill’s balancing of these two stories, the way the small loss opens the door to the big one.
About halfway through, she describes a trip to a shelter where she hopes Gattino might have been turned in. She knows the trip is futile, just like she knows it is ridiculous to follow up on the leads of the various pet psychics she has been put in contact with. She does it anyway. Over the radio comes the news about Blackwater contractors shooting into a crowd of Iraqi civilians, killing a young man and his mother, who had leapt out of her car to hold his body: ‘I hear stories like this every day, and I realise they are terrible stories. But I don’t feel anything about them. When I heard this one, I felt like my heart had been torn open. It was the loss of the cat that had made this happen; his very smallness and lack of objective consequence made the tearing open possible.’ It sounds obvious when you put it like that, but how many other writers are there who are capable of pulling this off, or who would even think to try?