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An acquaintance once asked Mary Gaitskill and her then husband about their house, which sat at the edge of a college campus, surrounded by woods.

I said it was nice but that it had been partly spoiled for me by the loss of our cat. I told him the story and he said, “Oh, that was your trauma, was it?”

I said yes. Yes, it was a trauma.

“Misthaven #4,” by Amy Kanka Valadarsky. Courtesy the artist

“Misthaven #4,” by Amy Kanka Valadarsky. Courtesy the artist

“Lost Cat,” the essay from which this scene is taken, is an account of several traumas — Gaitskill braids together her desperate grief over sickly, spunky Gattino, who ran away, with recollections of hosting children through the Fresh Air Fund and the death of her father — but the real trauma is love itself. “Human love is grossly flawed, and even when it isn’t, people routinely misunderstand it, reject it, use it, or manipulate it,” she writes. She had hoped it would be easier to love an animal than a person. It wasn’t. At one point, after she has consulted a pet psychic and scattered her dirty clothes on the bushes to attract long-gone Gattino with her scent, she wonders if she has turned into someone who cannot be satisfied by life, someone who is “unable to accept what is given.” Then she thinks of the cat.

A lost cat would not ask itself if food and shelter were too much to expect, or try to figure out how much food and shelter were enough or who was the right person to give those things. It would just keep trying to get those things until the moment it died.

SOMEBODY WITH A LITTLE HAMMER (Pantheon, $25.95), a collection of twenty years of Gaitskill’s reviews and essays, is strewn with such pearls. “People tend to treat others as they treat themselves,” she remarks in a review of Gone Girl. From an article about the many book jackets that have wrapped Lolita: “Purity of feeling must live and breathe in the impure gardens of our confused, compromised, corrupt, and broken hearts.”

Readers of Gaitskill’s novels and short stories will recognize the shrewdness, and the themes. She gives depth to marginal female characters, the kind of women who are so thin or hunched over that you look right through them, if you see them at all. She is impatient with moral piety and despises the contempt that wears a mask of sympathy; an essay on Linda Lovelace takes aim at those who degrade the actress by simplifying her story of degradation, masochism, desire, and “enormous loneliness” into a moral fable. Simplification is an aesthetic as well as an ethical lapse: Gaitskill criticizes John Updike for putting a character into an interesting situation and giving him no complex thoughts about it. She often stages judgments as disagreements with family members or friends, who are made to play the fool, or, sometimes, with herself. “I rolled my eyes at this piece of clumsy cleverness,” she writes in a review of Dubravka Ugrešic’s novel Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, “and then got so engaged by it, I couldn’t stop reading.”

Left: Elsa Schiaparelli’s library, painted by Jeremiah Goodman. Courtesy Rizzoli. Right: The bedroom of Marcel and Hélène Rochas © André Kertész/Condé Nast via Getty Images

Left: Elsa Schiaparelli’s library, painted by Jeremiah Goodman. Courtesy Rizzoli. Right: The bedroom of Marcel and Hélène Rochas © André Kertész/Condé Nast via Getty Images

“The Trouble with Following the Rules,” an essay first published in this magazine in 1994, looks back on two violent sexual encounters. The second, in which Gaitskill was raped by a stranger who threatened her life, was “relatively easy to dismiss”; the first, which she no longer considers rape, haunted her for years. “I had, in a sense, done violence to myself,” she concludes of the sex she didn’t refuse while high on LSD. Gaitskill insists on taking responsibility for her feelings and experiences. But, as always, she is sensitive to vulnerability — her own and everyone else’s. “If thousands of Americans say they are in psychic pain, I would not be so quick to write them off as self-indulgent fools,” she writes, a sentence that reverberates with new meaning in the context of our current social-justice movements, which have been dismissed by some as whiny self-victimization.

So-called victim culture is not new, but it has rarely found a more thoughtful analyst. “This apparent desire to be a victim,” she wrote in a 2003 reflection on the movie Secretary, based on her short story of the same name, “cloaks an opposing dread”:

Americans are in truth profoundly, neurotically terrified of being victims, ever, in any way. . . . To be human is finally to be a loser, for we are all fated to lose our carefully constructed sense of self, our physical strength, our health, our precious dignity, and finally our lives.

Now that our bully in chief has turned the word “loser” into a punch line and his targets into punching bags, we would do well to keep our collective loserdom in mind — the inherent, unavoidable frailty that coexists with vigor and love. “A refusal to tolerate this reality is a refusal to tolerate life.”

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