Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin

In my first couple of weeks in college, I was indoctrinated into Ayn Rand’s philosophy. I had found a slim paperback, Anthem, on a friend’s bookshelf and started reading it; every time somebody caught me with the book, they made a comment about Ayn Rand and what she stood for, and eventually I was invited to join the campus Objectivism group. Anthem was okay, but I had read similar things by Ray Bradbury and Borges, whose work had left more of an impression on me.

At the first Objectivist meeting, I was warned that joining the group would probably put me on the FBI’s watch list. Heady stuff for a college freshman. I joined the group immediately and collected my handful of pamphlets on Objectivism. The second meeting I attended there was a hostile takeover because some of the members objected to the name of the group, saying Rand’s philosophy was not taught and therefore the group should not use Objectivism to identify itself. That was the last of my Objectivism experiment. I read the pamphlets and tried to plow through The Fountainhead, but I found it tedious stuff. I didn’t see what the big deal was.

Anna Granite, an Ayn Rand stand-in, is the linchpin around which Mary Gaitskill’s novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin centers. A great deal of the novel has to do with female aggression, a theme I find myself revisiting again and again. Dorothy Never is a fat, fortyish proofreader with little connection to real life. Her defining moment came when she threw off her abusive family (an incestuous father and a mother who was blind to it) to follow Anna Granite and become a new person. Justine Shade is a physically beautiful woman in her late twenties who is researching and writing an article on Anna Granite for an avant-garde magazine.

Dorothy finds a notice in the Laundromat, looking for interview subjects on Anna Granite, and eagerly offers her services. That’s how the two women, fat and thin, are introduced. Much backstory is dedicated to the victimization that both women have been subjected to. Dorothy survived horrific abuse early in her life, and except for one brief affair, she has not let anybody get close to her. Justine had a fairly perfect childhood and victimized other girls in her teens, sometimes waffling between being a bully or not. As the story progresses from the women’s pasts to the present, Justine goes in an opposite direction from victimizer to victimized.

Dorothy, however, has found a stasis. She separates herself from the world, usually by windows. Dorothy works the night shift and takes the company car service to and from work, where she views New York through tinted windows. She watches the action in the gym across the street from her apartment, where humans work out as if they were in a giant Habitrail. When Dorothy does find herself rubbing shoulders with the masses in the subway system, Gaitskill sticks her on a pin, nearly eviscerating her:

"I noticed that I was three stations past my stop and rose, cursing. My purse fell off my arm and onto the floor, my keys, lipstick, and change poured out of it. All at once I was engulfed by life’s physically mechanical nature, all the tiny movements and functions you have to perform correctly just to get through the day, all the accoutrements you must carry which can malfunction at any time. Panicked, I fell on the subway floor, groping for my belongings. Legs shifted about me as the animated forest of humans came to life like enchanted trees; hands shot forth, stealing my change, helpfully extending my keys to me, returning my rolled-away lipstick with an impressive hand-to-hand relay involving several school children and a ‘Yo! Lady!’ I was helped, hindered, patted, pulled up, and nodded at, and then the people turned into trees again, frozen on their straps. I passed through them to exit with the ritual Excuse me’s, the doors rattled shut behind me, and I realized I’d left the paper on the train."

Gaitskill is harsh with her characters, drawing out all the ugliness in their personalities, but she is wonderfully kind and generous to them at the same time. At the end of Two Girls, Fat and Thin, I loved the characters Justine and Dorothy even more because their flaws had been exposed.

Leave a Reply