Mary Gaitskill’s ‘Lost Cat’ is an essay in the latest Granta, I07. The cat was lost twice since there’s the body of the cat, the fact of it…now missing… and then there’s what seems more important than that…the emotional form of the cat which haunts Mary Gaitskill. We don’t have a word in English for this ghost cat.
Greek drama, millennia ago, suffered direct. The text bled in your face. But I’ve talked to writers about how difficult it is to express emotions in prose. The cruelty of the gods, the pounding of the three fates on the door…we don’t have that to explain our suffering anymore.
Gaittino, MG’s cat, blind in one eye, a youngster of about seven months, has been brought back to Gaitskill’s home after being dealt a rough score in Tuscany where Gaitskill and her husband were on holiday. They leave him in the garden and turn their back. Gone.
I think this is a common experience for kitten possessors. I had a sweet friend once who had gotten himself a kitten. He took the feline tyke out to the driveway one sunny afternoon so it could romp while he washed his car. While he was glancing at his reflection in the windshield, the kitten disappeared. He never did find it. Heartbroken.
Gaitskill tries to find the unfindable. It’s awesome how reality breaks apart like shattering funhouse mirrors in an Orson Welles movie as the stories the investigating Gaitskill gets from neighborhood people deconstruct each other. Gaittino is seen in a nearby parking lot or wandering around by some campus housing. MG hears scare stories about a predatory bobcat and coyotes. She conducts night-searches by reported sightings. She leaves food and pieces of old family clothing around the yard in the hopes that the cat will smell chez Gaitskill and stumble back home.
And she consults psychics. My Greek blood simmers. After thousands of generations, we are still consulting oracles. Seers report that Gattino has died in some gully in the forest while struggling to find her way home. There are also predictions that she is still alive. So there are three or four basic stories of what has happened to Gaittino, some from eyewitness reports and others from seers. In the light of all these sightings, if this were ancient Egypt a temple might be built for this cat.
Gaitskill wonderfully falls down the rabbit hole that we are all really digging for ourselves. We hear something of the suffering of Gaitskill’s sisters, Martha and Jane, plagued by financial and medical problems in the land without affordable health care. And we hear about all the sisters’ strained relationship with their difficult father, agonizingly dying of cancer while refusing medical aid.
There is also a fascinating story of how Gaitskill and her husband tried to befriend some underprivileged children, age six and ten, Caesar and his sister Natalia. For a couple of weeks, show poor urban kids the beautiful country life which, of course, bears no relation at all to their own virtually resource-free existence.
In one wonderful scene, Gaitskill helps Natalia to write a school paper. Imagine having a National Book Award nominee as your child’s tutor! The report is completed on time for class. But the kid doesn’t bother to hand it in. And it must be hard to rusticate a city boy who threatens to cut you.
Gaitskill cross examines reality on the witness stand. Where is Gaittino? Can I find him empirically? Can I find him psychically or in dreams? Then there’s that rabbit hole: Why can’t I help children if I care about them? Why can’t I be friends with people or help my family if I love them? I greatly admire the emotional honesty. I think the stiff upper lip is overrated, don’t you?
I can imagine Mary Gaitskill breaking down the door of a deserted pagan temple and going inside to the black blood-dried empty altar, falling down on the stone floor, littered with dead leaves and rat shit, and having herself a good cry. Why can’t reality be the way we want it to be? Well…you see…the gods…the three fates…oh I forgot…we don’t have that stuff anymore. All we have is Mary Gaitskill’s missing cat.
I think I know what my runtish, genetically defective, charcoal smudge of a half-toothless 15 year old cat, Little Stinky, would say: “Usually, when a cat goes missing Dennis, it doesn’t want to be found.”