By Mary Gaitskill
Pantheon, 226 pp., $23.95
A few seasons back on Showtime’s recently-wrapped lesbian soap opera The L Word, one of the main characters, an aspiring fiction writer named Jenny Schecter, decided to take some inspiration from Mary Gaitskill. This was never explicitly acknowledged on the show, but was obvious to anyone familiar with Ms. Gaitskill: There was Jenny, with her longish dark bangs, in a Peter Pan–collared blouse eerily similar to one donned by Ms. Gaitskill on her book jacket, scribbling lines about sex and abuse and the darker corners of life. It was meant to be homage, but as per usual on The L Word, it came off more as farce.
The impression of Ms. Gaitskill was totally out of date and superficial. First off, she’s now a blonde! But she’s also changed so much as a writer over the last decade that associating her with simple subversion, or the much-too-light film Secretary, based on one of her early short stories, is sort of ridiculous. Mary Gaitskill may still be our best chronicler of the fringe, but today it is less the fringe of humanity than it is fringe feelings inside all of us—of our minds and our hearts and our guts as well as our groins. Where her earlier characters were freaks and addicts and the dirtiest among us, today she’s writing about the filth and wool inside all of humanity.
Her latest book, a collection of stories called Don’t Cry, for the most part lacks the titillating aspects of her earlier stories, collected in Bad Behavior (1988) and Because They Wanted To (1998), building rather on the very literary and sad and wonderful Veronica, Ms. Gaitskill’s 2005 novel about an erstwhile fashion model who, in later life, works as an office cleaning woman and suffers from both hepatitis and debilitating loneliness. There are still some young people in Don’t Cry—in a difficult, abstract story called “Mirror Ball,” a meditation on soul and sex and how one can lose part of the former when participating in the latter—and in a piece called “College Town, 1980,” about a young woman with masochistic tendencies who pulls out her own hair and dissects the tiny world around her. Not much happens, but that’s the point: Of all the stories here, “College Town, 1980” best shows Ms. Gaitskill’s formidable, economical talent with language: how perfectly chosen words can make any person interesting, even a mentally imbalanced 20-something sitting in a coffee shop or a dining room, having banal conversations with herself or someone else.
This is classic, from that story: “When her father came to visit her in the mental hospital, right after Allan had dumped her, she said, ‘Daddy, I want you to beat me.’ He’d turned away and licked his lips. … The first time she’d been in a mental hospital, she’d asked him to kill her; this second request seemed reasonable in comparison.”
But there are also older characters, mostly women, treated every bit as empathetically as the famous bad boys and girls of Ms. Gaitskill’s earlier work. In the gripping and tugging title story (which shares a character with the story before it, “Description”), a recently widowed, childless 50-year-old woman accompanies her friend to Ethiopia, where the friend is hoping to adopt a baby without the red tape of an official adoption agency; dispelling popular perceptions, the protagonist connects effortlessly to the eventually acquired child, and the narrative remains about her efforts to come to terms with her widowhood rather than a lament for progeny. In “The Arms and Legs of a Lake,” a dazzling story following the thoughts and interactions of a handful of strangers on an Amtrak train to Syracuse (where Ms. Gaitskill teaches), a middle-aged magazine editor enters a tense conversation with an unstable Iraq war veteran; her attempts to be both sympathetic (“This man has been damaged by the war, but he is still profound”) and bold (“Did any of them seem angry?” she asks about the Iraqis he encountered) are believable and pathetic in their fruitlessness. Eventually, the man is tossed off the train for inappropriately touching another passenger.
Yet for all these, “Today I’m Yours” feels like the central piece of the book. It is a simple and straightforward story about a woman writer in her late 40s who runs into a former lover on the streets of Manhattan, prompting a sensitive and engrossing reverie into their history. What resonates most is the writer’s description of her work, which could easily describe Ms. Gaitskill’s career as well:
“When we first met, nothing was like this. That was 15 years ago. I had just published a book that was like a little box with monsters inside it. I had spent five dreary years writing it in a tiny apartment with a sink and a stove against one wall and a mattress against the other, building the box and its inhabitants out of words that ran, stumbled, posed, and pirouetted across cheap notepaper like a swarm of hornets were after them. … I did not realize I had made monsters, nor how strong they were, until the book was published and they lifted the roof off my apartment, scaled the wall, and roamed the streets in clothes I never would’ve worn myself. Everywhere I went, it seemed, my monsters had preceded me. …”)
There are monsters in Don’t Cry, but they are far in the background, peeking out from behind Ms. Gaitskill’s deliberate prose, her ideas, her women. Her talent is what precedes her now.