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Gaitskill, in this wide-ranging essay volume, maintains one clear theme: human beings are too complex to be sized up in the socially convenient labels we primarily deal in. Most of us would nod our heads indulgently to convey: “of course, we all know that.” But the author shows us how people actually DO respond (which is simplistically) followed by a reconsideration in a wider context. What Gaitskill offers is her extraordinary empathy in excavating the motives on both sides of a conflict.

In the title essay, she analyzes her own contradictory intentions and reactions in some sexual encounters and includes paradoxes of feeling in Nabokov’s Lolita and some prominent political posturing.

“Enchantment and Cruelty” covers the true story of Peter Pan –not meaning a look at J.M.Barrie, but at the story itself–importantly different than the Disney film.

With Dickens’ Bleak House, Gaitskill examines the novel’s “numinous unconscious.”  She finds that Dickens accomplishes something extraordinary “by using words to make concepts into visceral pictures, as eloquent and fluid as dream images; …emotions, ideas, and events become physical and alive.”

In the long, central piece, the author relates her desperate attempts to recover a lost kitten. En route, Gaitskill interweaves her experiences foster- parenting and her alienation from her own father. Here again, the author exposes how equivocal people are in their interactions.

“Dye Hard” is a review of Joyce Carol Oates novel Blonde based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Gaitskill decries some excesses and praises some insights and overall detects three voices running through the text: one is feverish, over-the-top, yet full of power like Dickens or Hugo; another voice remains precise and observant; while a third is described as “muscular and sensual–a stereotypical male voice.” On balance, Gaitskill feels that Oates “honors her subject.”

Altogether this book holds 31 essays and certainly has something for everyone. Gaitskill writes clear, engaging prose with lots of herself in it, yet her judgments are firm and reasonable.          Don 1/29/2020

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