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I would like to nominate the following sentence for the award of Best First Sentence of a Work of Fiction That I’ve Read in the Last Year.

Brace yourself. This is a great first sentence:

“Joey felt that his romance with Daisy might ruin his life, but that didn’t stop him.”

Wow—it feels so good to write about something other than the coronavirus! Remember when people were talking about the #MeToo movement? Remember when people were talking about men and women, good and bad, and pleasure? That was an entire eon ago. But let’s go back there in memory. Why not? It might be healthy to remember that, even though we’re cooped up now, and it sucks, things weren’t always so great when people were free to intermingle. . . .

Mary Gaitskill wrote that opening sentence. It’s from her collection of short stories, published in 1988, called Bad Behavior. The book became immensely popular. And rightfully so: the language is superb, and the subject matter is, let’s say, intense.

Gaitskill recently reemerged into the spotlight for a new work of fiction, a very slim book called This Is Pleasure. Like Bad Behavior, the language of This Is Pleasure is impeccable. Each word is perfectly placed. Very little is said, but just enough is said. Just enough to create powerful effect. Just enough to make the reader stop, and gasp, and think.

Both of these books are about relationships that are subtly twisted. It’s like this: You’re living your life the best way you know how, which isn’t so great because your childhood experiences fucked you up, and you’re kind of a mess, but you’re living the best you can, you know? and you meet someone, and things feel okay . . . until they are suddenly NOT OKAY. In all caps! NOT OKAY.

The main difference between these two books is that one was published in the 80s, and the other was published last year in response to the #MeToo movement. But both books examine relations between men and women in a way that goes much deeper than the news articles we have been reading about #MeToo and such. These books are nuanced. These books are unflinching and strong.

When This Is Pleasure came out, in 2019, The Guardian published an interview with Gaitskill. In it, the article’s author, Leslie Jamison, notes that the public reaction to Gaitskill’s work has not always been positive. People have called her fiction “cold” or “brutal.”

And perhaps it is; but it’s as real as real can be. This is keeping it real in America, people. In the article, it is revealed that Gaitskill and Jamison have different explanations for why the public might feel repelled by these books. Here’s one of the last sentences of the article, written by Jamison:

“Gaitskill is suggesting that some people might find the worlds of her own fiction brutal largely because they are so unfamiliar, but part of me wonders if people call her work brutal not because of what they don’t know, but because of what they do know, and how difficult it can be to face certain kinds of knowledge.”

Both of these explanations are surely true. There are surely people out there who have never experienced abuse or toxicity in relationships. There are also surely people out there who have, but don’t realize that they have. And people who have, but aren’t capable of admitting that they have.

There are also people who have faced brutality, and know it, and can admit it, and are trying to move past it, . . . a difficult thing to do, but possible.

There are always good possibilities. Yep, good eventualities are a thing! Don’t forget that.

Don’t forget that, as you read this masterful opening line again:

“Joey felt that his romance with Daisy might ruin his life, but that didn’t stop him.”

Yeah: you feel the toxicity of a potential action; but you simultaneously feel the intense pleasure of it. So you plunge headfirst into disaster.

No kidding—I’ve plunged into disaster at least three times in the past week.

And then thought, What the hell am I doing?! and swam, gasping desperately, out.

When was the last time you plunged into disaster?

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