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A New Collection Of Stories By Mary Gaitskill Is Long Overdue.

By Piers Marchant

Because They Wanted To, by Mary Gaitskill (Simon & Schuster). Cloth, $22.

AUGUST 11, 1997:  MARY GAITSKILL'S first collection of stories in more than 10 years, Because They Wanted To, cements her reputation as a gifted writer unafraid of treading on dangerous and unsettling ground. Here, as in her first collection Bad Behavior, Gaitskill expertly mines her characters' twisted psyches, recording and revealing in small snatches the demographics of sex, power and intimacy. It's a brutal, wonderful collection, absorbing and terrifying in its unflinching look at our private lives.

Gaitskill's writing is a marvel of interconnecting tensions, incorporating present anxiety with past affliction. In her best work, there's a seamless rendering of disturbed synergy--a catalogue of all the things that are out of place and gloomy in her characters' harrowing worlds. The title story focuses on the homeless girl Elise, who's fleeing from Seattle to the Canadian border to escape a peculiar, incestuous relationship with her brother. Desperate for money, she accepts a baby-sitting job from a woman who promises to pay her in time. Clumsy, awkward and completely incapable of handling small children, Elise spends a harrowing day with two small boys and a baby. As the day progresses, and the mother's return is delayed, Elise increasingly loses control over the children, until disaster seems imminent.

Like a Diane Arbus photo in close detail, Gaitskill constantly cross-references tidy images with a bleak, chaotic overtone--the literary equivalent of a gray balloon in a bucket of blood. Elise's musings on the family placed in her care, for example, commingle maternal care with a disturbing air of misplaced sexuality: "She thought Robin must sleep in this bed with Penny, curled around her protectively as you would sleep with a kitten. Eric and Andy must sleep with them too. The bed was big, but still they would have to sleep close. She wondered if they wore pajamas. That would be uncomfortable in the heat, but it might be even more uncomfortable to touch sticky naked limbs...She wondered if Robin had a light, lacy gown to wear, or a nylon shortie."

The tension mounts until it's almost unendurable, but the story does not end in dramatic finale. More hauntingly, it's like a tide sucked back out to sea, certain to rise again. By the end, you're left with a sense of relief; but whatever's at the heart of Elise's tragedy remains dangerously unaccounted for.

In "Orchid," two former college housemates meet up, years later, and resume their give-and-take relationship. Margot is a social worker struggling to emotionally replace the woman who left her months ago; and Patrick, a pharmacologist lost in his own middle-of-the-road helplessness, is still trying to play by the same rules of conduct that were successful in college. An awkward first date--punctuated by Patrick's brittle and inept come-on behavior--is nonetheless affecting to Margot. Helplessly, they play out their old relationship until the juxtaposition becomes too anachronous and sad. The story leaves them lying on a bed, together alone, desperate, and unable to access each other on any level.

Like Joyce Caroll Oates, another writer concerned with the complexities of sex and power, Gaitskill's stories are tinged with the obsessional, unyielding power of sex and self-knowledge; instead of answers, conclusions, or climaxes, her characters always come full circle, ending up perhaps wiser, but inevitably alone, listless, and in terrible need.

In "Dentist," a woman becomes obsessed with her orthodontist, who's so bland that she fills in the blank spaces of his image with her own convoluted sexual past. She's neurotically lonely and bored, telling her friends about him and her perceptions of his strangeness. His inscrutability remains a torturing mystery to her--locked tightly in her deep-rooted need for answers and explanations, even though it's clear none will be forthcoming.

Not every story hits the mark. There are some missteps, including the aptly titled "The Wrong Thing," the only first-person story in the collection, which attempts to string a series of smaller pieces together via an unfocused and cumbersome narrative. But the best stories in this collection are a completely engrossing verbal assault, challenging in their glaring clarity and uncompromising conclusions.

Gaitskill is too skilled a writer to allow simple escape from her characters' awkward, neurotic, and damaged-beyond-repair identities. The portraits she paints are deeply moving and sympathetic. Perhaps she reveals her mission statement in "Orchid," with Margot's observation: "You know how sometimes you see something that looks really gross or stupid? Like a big fat guy walking down the street wearing a shirt that says, 'I Like It Doggy Style'?...It's that person's way of saying, 'Here I am.' Or you go into a really bad immigrant neighborhood at Christmas--these people just got here, everything's against them...But you'll always see a few houses covered in lights and crèches and reindeer--they're giving it everything they have. It's a triumphant cry."

And a triumphant collection.

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