Gaitskill fans will be pleased to learn that the wise iconoclasm of her fiction is also on display in this, her first nonfiction book ... Throughout, Gaitskill is reliably unsparing but never mean, nor clever for the sake of it; even when operating as a critic she retains an artist’s appreciation for the labors of creative work. Those times she trains her eye on her own process, such as in her 2003 essay about the movie adaptation that 'bears almost no relationship' to her short story, 'Secretary,' on which it was based, are particularly satisfying. So are the moments when we’re treated to her theories on the purpose of story and form ... Her prescience is agenda-free, but it’s her exceptionally discerning writings on women — Linda Lovelace, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton — that make one wish she had (or even wanted) her own syndicated newspaper column.
Gaitskill’s responses are so deeply intelligent, so idiosyncratic yet insightful — can I be blamed for wishing she would turn her gaze to more timely subjects? This is not to say any of this work is without merit, but rather to admit, quickly and sheepishly (even peevishly) that I felt a bit the cherry-picker before a bowl of melon-heavy fruit salad ... That’s how the best of these essays work: as a clanging, double-bell-alarm-clock wake-up call for those of us who have ceased to notice or question or understand our own experiences, who have, indeed, failed to recognize what we are doing to ourselves by wandering through life in a self-imposed fog ... Compelling as Gaitskill’s cultural criticism may be, ['Lost Cat'] is the essay that made me wish for more like it ... here comes Somebody with a Little Hammer, Mary Gaitskill, to demolish not just anyone who would deny us our frailties, but the defenses we ourselves construct to keep our humanity hidden away in the dark.
Somebody with a Little Hammer makes the case for Gaitskill's centrality as a writer and burns off dodgy concepts that have stuck to her work. If you have not yet worked through a thought with Gaitskill, Somebody is a primer. It makes entirely clear how seriously she takes the idea of fairness, in life and in fiction, and how averse she is to even the lightest thumb on the scale ... There is no reason you can't skip this and go right to the fiction, except that you'd miss twenty-five years or so of Gaitskill walking you through the facts. Even when you hit some emotional math you'd probably rather round up to save time, Gaitskill won't let you.
In nonfiction Gaitskill proves a very effective analyst of her own impulses ... This qualified, considered view of difficult questions means that Gaitskill sacrifices the propulsive force of the firebrand for the more unsettled role of the essayist. The result is that it’s much more difficult to forget the insights that she comes to. By tethering herself to the complexities of human experience, Gaitskill gets a lot more mileage out of her subject that a writer of lesser intelligence does. Put together here, all her essays do seem to be making a similar point: what looks like one kind of humanity, from a distance, is actually something more internally conflicted, more lost to itself.
...a cool and formidable collection of essays, reviews and other matter ... Gaitskill is the second writer I’ve read in the past year (the other was Jenny Diski, in her memoir In Gratitude) to say about rape something I hadn’t before heard and would not have expected: that it was not a defining event in her life ... There’s an appealing sense that she composed these essays because she wanted to, not because a payday was on offer ... She continues to wield a remorseless little hammer.
Somebody With a Little Hammer, a collection of twenty years of Gaitskill’s reviews and essays, is strewn with pearls ... 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.
['Lost Cat' is] a gutting, brutal, lovely piece of work. Deserving of many more adjectives, though these will suffice. It’s 'ideal Gaitskill' as well, and a pinnacle display of her power as a writer. It’s worth the purchase of Somebody With A little Hammer just to read it ... Gaitskill’s bi-pronged commitment to both gentleness and unsparing clarity gives us a wholly new perspective from which to consider her subject. This is her style, and largely hers alone, crafted over decades; she's emotional without ever being cloudy or sodden, intellectual but never cold or removed. And not only is there no one doing what she does better than she does it, there's really no one else doing it at all ... Too much at once can be repellent. But Gaitskill’s writing is somehow crucial in a way few of her peers can achieve. She says the things you didn’t know needed to be said until she says them, and only then do you know what you’ve been missing.
Somebody With a Little Hammer, may be uneven. But it’s also indispensable. Its strongest entries — a mini-memoir about a lost cat, a meditation on the troubled life of porn star Linda Lovelace — match the prowess of Gaitskill’s best fiction by paying intelligent attention to every stubborn strand in her wayward subjects’ existences ... Where Gaitskill doesn’t shine so brightly is in the numerous book reviews included. The writing isn’t at fault, even if Gaitskill’s close focus on complexities of tone can sometimes lead her to omit any mention of what a book is actually trying to do. But reviews, especially of titles with topical concerns, are intrinsically ephemeral ... Still, the more substantial essays, where Gaitskill draws on her personal experience to crack the veneers of the social codes and sexual ambiguities we all navigate, are the gold here.
Even those essays which start with the broadest of subjects—myth, religion, literature—repeatedly turn inward, drawn by Gaitskill’s interest in complicated inner landscapes, her favorite theme of 'the innately mixed, sometimes debased nature of human love,' and her unyielding 'moral empathy' for the perversity of the human condition. The surprising, nimble prose alone is a delight, and the pages burst with insight and a candid, unflinching self-assessment sure to thrill Gaitskill’s existing fans and win her new ones.
Gaitskill takes a ‘fair and balanced’ approach to issues of sexual morality, always championing the experiential underdog: the person who might not be able to articulate a point of view with perfect clarity, but whose voice is crucial any real lasting understanding … Gaitskill’s bi-pronged commitment to both gentleness and unsparing clarity gives us a wholly new perspective from which to consider her subject. This is her style, and largely hers alone, crafted over decades; she's emotional without ever being cloudy or sodden, intellectual but never cold or removed. And not only is there no one doing what she does better than she does it, there's really no one else doing it at all.