Book Review: “The Devil’s Treasure” — An Absorbing Exercise in Literary Self-Examination

By Drew Hart

The takeaway from The Devil’s Treasure is that everything under consideration in this unique project is somehow beautiful, even when seemingly pained.

The Devil’s Treasure: A Book of Stories & Dreams by Mary Gaitskill. McNally Editions/Simon & Schuster, 267 pp.

The time has come to talk about a book that almost got away: the deservedly acclaimed novelist and storyteller Mary Gaitskill published this rather unique offering with an unsung Houston publisher. It received little notice. Then lately, the very sharp people at the young shop, McNally Editions — connected to the great bookseller in New York —  took it upon themselves to rerelease it. That was back in August; there were crickets? Your F.C.* hasn’t been much help; he spent a fair amount of time on the road this summer (including a visit to the storied Fuse headquarters in Somerville… first such trip in quite a while. Hey Beantown, think there’s plenty to like in your fair burg nowadays… Go to this outstanding Peruvian restaurant — opened lately — La Royal!)

But it isn’t too late now to drum up deserved attention — it really never is, when something is so accomplished. The only thing is, how to explain this challenging and affecting puzzle, The Devil’s Treasure. You may ask, “what is it?” And it’s complicated to describe…

Here comes the old college try: Gaitskill, in what must be regarded as an exercise in self-reflection, has created a collection that is at once a compendium of excerpts from novels she has previously written and reflections on them that lend insight into her own writerly life. Interspersed with the many entries is a kind of through line — a story of a young woman who finds herself in Hell, seeking to steal a treasure that sits in a sack behind the throne of Satan. She succeeds in making off with it, and gradually winds her way back to the world of the living, at which point she discovers her prize has somehow vanished. Is this a way of trying to explain an attempt to make a life, to find a path through the world?

So it seems. Meanwhile, passages selected from her earlier novels and from a personal memoir take turns on the stage. Fragments from Two Girls, Fat and Thin; Veronica; The Mare (these are fictions); and Lost Cat (the memoir), appear and reappear. As they do so, they’re accompanied by interjections by Gaitskill: commentaries on her life, her writing, what was intended, what brings joy and sadness, what she isn’t sure about. In time, you come to see how everything melds together, how it all intersects. Dreams the author has had, childhood memories, frustrations in life and art — reverberate, to the point where it seems as though it’s all out of whole cloth. At some point it becomes hard to distinguish between the fiction and the writer’s life; we find ourselves thumbing back through the pages to remember what was what. She is, in her asides, firm about making it clear that her own reality isn’t actually the same as the events in her novels. Yes, there are similarities, but no, they are not the same.

From here, the takeaway is that everything under consideration in this unique project is somehow beautiful, even when seemingly pained. The Devil’s Treasure is an absorbing exercise — a chance to see deeply into Gaitskill’s world and, at the least, a fine introduction to her oeuvre. It might have been a bit easier to follow, though, had there been more distinctions between the various entries. There are some ways to tell them apart, through fonts and indentation size, but it requires a lot of effort. Still, the job is more than worth it. Lately it seems to your F.C. — is it post-Covid inundation? — that there’s just a fire hose of cultural happenings. It’s pretty easy to miss out on things because our attention spans are shorter than ever, and spotlights are brief. You’ve been advised — this is one book that deserves more readers.

Drew Hart — your *Faithful Correspondent – writes from Santa Barbara, California

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