Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

I’ve been carrying around this book for the last few weeks and now I sit down to review it, I can’t find my copy. In some way this chimes with my feeling for the work. I’m sad I don’t have the book in front of me so that I can copy down the passages that felt most relevant to summing up the book, but then filtering my responses to the writing through memory is perhaps better suited to the essay-cum-memoir that is Lost Cat.

A compelling contemplation of grief and longing, Lost Cat isn’t just about the kitten of the title and on the cover, it is a way for Mary Gaitskill to prize open the lid of her emotions about the death of her father and her attempts at caring for two children from a disadvantaged home that she and her husband looked after now and again. 

The links between the kitten and the father make sense. Gaitskill explains that the smaller losses  – those of animals for example – allow an outpouring of grief that is often blocked when facing the deaths of those most significant in our lives, such as her father. 

When the kitten goes missing, she does everything she can think of to get it back. She covers her garden in her dirty laundry, lays a trail of cat shit from the litter tray from her home all the way to the fields across the road, and consults mediums. Everything becomes a symbol of something, a signifier for the cat’s status: is a lost marble luck gone missing, or a bad luck charm she threw into the fields? She creates meaning from objects in a way that mimics a religion, desperate to piece together some sense in the world.

This would be where I would have quoted the line she used from another author all about religion and the human desire to make sense of existence.

So this is partly what the essay/memoir is doing. She is trying to give her life a shape, trying to form sense from her experiences and emotions. 

The two children from a disadvantaged background make the work much more complex. Suddenly the idea of writing about real people is exposing not just of the writer, in whom the power rests – she is a woman of privilege and she wields the pen and shapes the story – but the children of whom she writes. They are given a voice, but not a context of their choosing. They are now adults, but her use of them in the essay is troubling. I admire how carefully she excavates the truth about herself. She does not show herself in the best light. But is it right for her to expose them?

This question hovering over the text, it feels as if the essay was written about them more than anything else. Her need to rescue the kitten was the same as her need to rescue these children whose mother beat them and whose desire for her affection was welcomed as long as she felt she had the emotional space to return it. When it became difficult, she took a step back. She lost the cat and she lost them too and ultimately it seems these losses were due to her own negligence. Is the essay then an exploration of her own failure?

I must say that though I admire the writing immensely, the sentences are as crisp as freshly laundered bed linen. I raced through the book and felt she was really trying to explore her own truth, even though we all know how difficult that can be. However, I leave the work with a real sense of uncertainty about the very process of writing itself. I know others found her cold – and she does have to distance herself to analyse her experience – but I found her intensely fragile and extremely emotionally sensitive, perhaps even precious. 

Despite my uncertainty of feeling about the book, it is fascinating and thought-provoking. Certainly a book worth reading and talking about. I’ll be reviewing The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr. next, followed by The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins.