Tuesday, November 2, 2010

On "Don't Cry" by Mary Gaitskill ***

Mary Gaitskill's most recent collection treads much of the same ground as her two earlier collections but also opens up a few new pathways. Readers familiar with her work know that she often delves into discomforting situations. The collection Bad Behavior does this more--and arguably better--than either of the succeeding collections: prostitutes meeting customers in real life long after having given up the business, women forced into awkward sexual situations by their employers, sadomasochistic lovers. Each collection for me, however, has become unfortunately less interesting.

Don't Cry's strongest stories come at the start and at the close of the collection. The leadoff, "College Town, 1980," my favorite here, seems vintage Gaitskill. I'd have difficulty describing exactly what happens, for it's one of those stories in which characters you find interesting do very little. These are people going nowhere fast, struggling just to keep themselves together. The focus in one girl, Delores, who's living with her brother and his girlfriend and one other roommate, taking a few classes, and trying to keep herself from falling deeper into insanity. Our encounter with her is breathtaking. "Don't Cry," the title story, ends the collection. Here, we focus on two women going to adopt a child in Ethiopia--a much tamer story than many of Gaitskill's other pieces in earlier collections, and one that shows a writer at her full maturity. This is paired with the story before it, "Description," when we learn of one incident that is shared between the two pieces. "Description" has power of its own, especially at its end, though it also felt a bit forced to me toward the early going (it's one of those stories about creative writing workshops, which tends to get an automatic groan from me).

Other pieces focus on a one-night stand turned into an obsession (written a bit too abstractly for my tastes); lesbian lovers remeeting after the passage of many years; an old woman who finds solace in helping a little boy by talking to him, under the impression that his own mother doesn't care about him; a Iraq War vet who touches a woman on a train and gets kicked off (told from multiple points of view, it's one of Gaitskill's most ambitious but arguably one of her less successful); and a woman who meets an old virgin (clearly not a story written from the point of view of an old virgin).

"The Agonized Face" offers a particularly interesting set of observations. It's set at a book fair, and the narrator is a reporter sent there to cover it. The narrator is particularly fascinated by a feminist writer who writes sexually explicit stories. Much in this piece, one could dangerously see as Gaitskill's own description of her philosophy of writing. I say dangerously because this is fiction, and she is working through characters, none of whom may actually speak for her. Finally "Folk Song" is a story that seems more like an essay, first published at Nerve and available here, about serial killers and serial sex and turtles. I've probably made it sound more interesting than it is; it is, in fact, my least favorite.

Yet despite my hesitancies regarding the collection as a whole, Gaitskill's writing shines in the small moments. Sentence after sentence in some these stories glows with small phrases that are as hard and beautiful as diamonds. Such writing is hard to come by, and for that, she's still got me looking forward to picking up her next collection.

No comments: