Mary Gaitskill’s work, now comprising three books of short fiction and two novels, is unremitting, often grotesque, filled with unhappy women seeking men who will act on their darkest desires. Only rarely does redemption occur: 2005’s breathtaking Veronica, filled with psychic grief and physical sickness, possesses an amazingly steady current of happiness despite protagonist Alison’s harsh reality. But Don’t Cry is a return to Gaitskill’s familiar darkness, ten difficult, layered stories, only one of which offers a glimmer of hope.
The first story, “College Town, 1980” is set in familiar Gaitskill territory: Dolores, recently released from a mental hospital, is sharing a house with her younger brother, Patrick, his beautiful girlfriend, Lily, and a fourth man named Mark. Dolores is older than her housemates; at twenty-nine she is homely and socially maladroit. A recent bout of hair-pulling forces her to cover her head with an unflattering scarf. Only Lily can be counted as a friend; the rest of the world, from cafe waitresses to college partiers, is hostile. Dolores herself invites some of this treatment by behaving oddly: like many Gaitskill characters, she is unlikable and pathetic, groundless, adrift. With three weeks left before semester’s end, Dolores decides to finish her neglected papers and earn her degree in history. We are not to know whether she accomplishes her goal.
“Folk Song” is an interleaved narrative taken from three newspaper stories: the trial of a man who murdered a mother and her daughter, a woman who intends to have intercourse with one thousand men in a row, and the theft of two box turtles from the Bronx Zoo. As we move between the woman on her sexual quest to the mother, just before her death, we are shown the ugliness of life. The woman has a “mechanical cunt, endlessly absorbing discharge.” The mother, in bed reading Reviving Ophelia, is depicted using the lavatory:
Getting out of bed to use the bathroom with only the hall light on, peeing in gentle darkness, remembering: Grown-up pee used to smell so bad to her, and now the smell is just another welcome issue of her hardworking body, tough and fleshy in middle age, safe under her old flowered gown.
To be female in Gaitskill’s world is to be a sexual victim. It’s as if the assumed ugliness of women’s bodies invites abuse. Allowing oneself to love means entering a hell populated by a ravening beast whose favorite morsel is female: “Why not split her open all the way, just for the pure animal joy of rending and tearing? For every woman even to skirt this place is dangerous because she has the open part…she needs rules…to make sure the openness doesn’t get too open.”
Even attractive characters are flawed, with jutting hips, ungainly posture, beefy limbs, bad skin, and odd mannerisms. Men—mostly boys, in this collection—escape this fate. They are beautiful, talented, yet utterly naïve. Few understand their actions any more than the women who woefully bed them. This is most apparent in “Mirror Ball”. A young male musician goes home with an appealing girl whose soul persists in showing itself. During intercourse, he steals her soul, as he has a few others. Neither is aware of what happened, though in the ensuing months both suffer terribly, the girl from an emptiness she mistakes as love, the boy from the girl’s soul, which chatters endlessly in his mind, awakening the other stolen souls, previously quiet. When the trapped souls are finally freed, the boy and girl are restored, but neither is any wiser.
“The Agonized Face” is perhaps the most complex, troubled story in the book. A stark investigation of feminism, the story follows a divorced journalist attending a literary festival, where a notorious writer is to read. A former sex worker, druggie, and mental patient, the woman is now a talented writer, but the journalist cannot decide whether the women is a true feminist or manipulative monster. Instead of reading from her work, the writer complains about the festival’s publicity, which focuses more on her titillating past than her current artistic successes. The writer gives an unexpectedly moving speech, silencing the audience. Heartened, she decides to read after all, choosing a salacious story that effectively negates the speech. The journalist, thinking of her ten-year-old daughter, already nervously preening before the mirror, demanding to dye her hair á la Gwen Stefani, is enraged. She attempts to interview the writer but is rebuffed. She meditates on this, “a stark polarity: intelligent words on one side, and mute genitals on the other.”
“Today I’m Yours” and “The Little Boy” are easier fare: in the first, two women move from a youthful affair to early middle age. After breaking up, they meet by chance over the next decade, ending up in bed each time, save the last, when they share a drink, then return home to their respective domestic havens. In “The Little Boy”, an encounter in an airport helps a woman resolve the death of her estranged husband. “An Old Virgin” is just that—a woman past forty, in for her annual physical, in fine health, single and untouched, the sole intact female of the book.
“The Arms and Legs of the Lake” represents that recent addition to wartime literature: the returning Iraq veteran. In this case, the veteran is on a train with a honeymooning couple, a deranged World War II vet, and a liberal editor. Tensions are only pulled tighter by racial divisions as Gaitskill captures the invasive horrors veterans are expected to cope with.
In “Description”, Gaitskill turns the tables on her writing students, acidly capturing their furtive jealousies and desperation as classmates achieve varying degrees of publication. Friends Kevin and Joseph are going on a hike together; Kevin is the “better” writer, having been published in a “big-deal magazine that paid.” Yet he is condescending about their teacher, the middle-aged Janice Braver, whom Joseph respects. Joseph, whose mother is recovering from breast cancer, is horrified to learn Kevin and Janice slept together after a party. Joseph hikes off alone, contemplating his mother’s sickness and the compassion Janice showed him, trying to reconcile this with Kevin’s dismissive description of a one-nighter.
“Don’t Cry”, the final story, appeared in the New Yorker. It’s a shame it appeared alone, for it is a companion piece to “Description”, narrated by Janice herself, who, following the death of her beloved husband Thomas, accompanies her friend Katya to Addis Ababa, where Katya has arranged to adopt a child. Addis turns out to be an impenetrable bureaucratic maze, with no babies to be found. Meanwhile, civil war is looming. Increasingly desperate, Katya works the system until she finally gets a toddler named Sonny. As she makes arrangements to get Sonny back to the States, Janice babysits the sickly child, longing for Thomas, who died a terrible death from Alzheimer’s disease. She confesses her infidelity to Katya: “I wanted sex and I wanted it to hurt.”
Yet there is a sort of absolution: when child thieves steal her wedding rings, a man returns them. Sonny’s ceaseless crying gradually tapers off; he begins to eating and walking. “I thrive, his body said to mine.” And the women, crouching in a car, the child held in the backseat, escape home.
Why subject yourself to this dispiriting book? Because Gaitskill is so damned good. Because in a world where publishers are buying less serious fiction, Gaitskill’s writing continues to set the bar for raw honesty made into art. Because you know people like Gaitskill’s characters (maybe you are like her characters), and by reading you will understand.