Monday April 20th, 2009

Crazily Alive

Don’t Cry: Stories by Mary Gaitskill
Pantheon, 240 pp., $23.95

Even if you have long known that the Mary Gaitskill staring daggers at you from author photos is actually in possession of a compassionate heart that is always and everywhere in her fiction, there may still be a shock at the stories in Don’t Cry — at the unabashed, urgent, and lyrical voicing of pain and confusion that her earlier characters, trying to keep their cool while the city tore away at them, might have called “corny.”

Gaitskill, because she has often written of women who seek domination or find themselves dominated, has a reputation as the girl whose characters cried “Spank me!” But she doesn’t write of dark corners to titillate — she does it to show that our attempts to work up some sublime are often futile and clumsy. She is no pornographer. This new collection — the follow-up to her 2005 novel Veronica, which was nominated for a National Book Award — makes that even clearer.

What really feels illicit in these stories is Gaitskill’s willingness to submerge herself in muddy, crazy, sorrowful emotions — her willingness to make emotions, especially the ones that follow from whatever predicament the body has put the mind in, her subject. There are not many respected, renowned female fiction writers claiming sex and love as their territory, which is understandable — one false or florid move could land you on the sidelines with the romance novelists, erotica writers, and chick litterateurs. It’s as if only Lydia Davis, with her very cool head, can pull off a dissection of the modern heart. Or Gaitskill, with her downtown cred. But in Don’t Cry, Gaitskill accomplishes something even trickier and braver than writing of sex and love with her usual brutal poignancy — she makes pronouncements on it, and she’s not exactly on the side of unfettered sensuality. It may be 2009, but Gaitskill wants us to know that girl power, feminist pundits, and the well-meaning idealism of sex without consequences is all just whistling in the dark, and we will always find ourselves confronted with the unchanging truth of “the crude cinderblocks of male and female down in the basement, holding up the house.”

Several of the stories read like essays in which Gaitskill gives herself permission to drift away from narrative in order to speak of sex as mystery, as war, and as spiritually dangerous mistake. (Better Gaitskill to describe the purgatory that is the morning after than Caitlin Flanagan, any day.) “Mirror Ball,” which examines, in fable-like language, a one-night stand that takes an unexpected toll on its participants, begins with this line: “He took her soul — though, being a secular-minded person, he didn’t really think of it that way.” “Folk Song” is a riff on culture and desire that springs from an unnamed narrator’s perusal of newspaper stories about serial killing, stolen zoo turtles, and a woman embarking on marathon sex. “In this context of terrible humanity,” the narrator says, “you think, The poor turtles! They do not deserve to be on the same page as these people! You think of them making their stoic way across a pebbled beach, their craning necks wrinkled and diligent, their bodies a secret even they cannot lick or scratch.”

In “The Agonized Face,” a journalist at a literary convention muses on the disingenuously cheeky work read by a professional feminist. Gaitskill’s narrator posits that the agonized face is what appears when the vulnerability of women is exposed — a vulnerability that men are not possessed of and one that is nowhere to be found in the feminist’s account of an older woman seducing a younger man. “If she had told the same story . . . and let us see the face — that would have been one thing,” says the narrator. “We could’ve sat back and nodded to ourselves, a little contemptuous maybe, yet respecting the truth of it. But to tell those stories and pretend there’s no agony — it makes you want to pinch her, like a boy in a gang, following her down the street while she tries to act like nothing’s wrong, hurrying her step while someone else reaches out for another pinch. It makes you want to chase her down an alley, to stone her, to force her to show the face she denies.” It’s tempting to think that Gaitskill had Laura Kipnis and her vamping rhetoric in mind when she conceived this character. “The feminist author — she told and then read her disturbing stories as if she were a lady at a tea party, as if there were no mystery, no darkness, just her, the feminist author skipping along, swinging some charming bag, and singing about penises, la la la la la!”

There is another agonized face in this book — the face of the mother, made vulnerable by her desire for her children. In “The Little Boy,” a widow named Bea mourns the distance she feels from her two adult daughters, and while mourning tries to soothe a lonely child she meets in an airport. Bea misses the way her girls, one cantankerous, the other sensitive, used to seek her out: “Before they went to sleep, her children would talk to her about anything, artlessly opening their most private doors so that she could make sure all was in order there.” Bea, with her aching love for her children, seems the sort of woman for whom the color periwinkle was invented — a character who’s a long way from the bummed-out, Chinese-food-eating Kiki de Montparnasses who populated Gaitskill’s earlier work. But Gaitskill, starting with the story “Heaven” in Bad Behavior, has written before of parents hoping for a flash of tenderness from their daughters, for the sudden return of the little girl who hung on them.

What is not often noted about Gaitskill is her expert rendering of the repulsion and attraction family members feel for each other. She writes about family in a way that gives it respect while acknowledging that its execution is often horribly bungled — it, too, is a mystery, she seems to say, why people linked by blood soften toward and crave each other even after wounds have been inflicted. As in Veronica, some of the most beautiful writing occurs in moments that pass between fathers and daughters. In “A Dream of Men,” a woman sits by the bed of her dying father, who had not always been gentle with her, and is not frightened by what she sees: “His body was shrunken and dried, already half-abandoned; his spirit stared from his eyes as if stunned, and straining to see more of what had stunned it.” And then he speaks: “When he answered her, his voice was like an old broken sack holding something live.”

Sex and death, spirits straining, stolen souls. Some might find Gaitskill’s writing sentimental. If you’re going to write about mothers and fathers and daughters, and girls and boys, fans of certain youngish male writers might say, shouldn’t you put them on another planet so that we think we are walking through a brave new fictional world and forget we are reading about, yawn, feelings? And yet her sensibility sets her firmly outside the circle of those who write decorously of the domestic. Gaitskill does not use words as ornaments. She makes a stark, often crude or naïve arrangement of them, often availing herself of the colloquial. Sometimes the stringing together of ordinary nouns and adjectives doesn’t open the story out into ecstasy or insight the way it’s meant to — phrases such as “sad glowing world” can ring hollow and detract from the overall power of her writing. But what prevails is an invigorating friction between tenderness, humor, and anger, and the accrual of images and metaphors makes an undertow that pulls at you gently only to knock you down at the end. And Gaitskill can be funny in the midst of despair; she knows how to coax wonderfully strange images out of it. In “College Town, 1980,” a girl struggling with depression takes stock in a café: “Dolores stared at her nails, like a sea blob heaved up on a hot beach, dimly realizing that its soft, flat flippers won’t help it walk back into the water.” And she follows it up with something equally wry: “Dolores thought that if to be humiliated was dead, she would be decomposed beyond recognition. But she was crazily alive, stuffed with blood and muscles, going to the bathroom regularly, having conversations.”

Crazily alive. Gaitskill’s fiction is an approximation of that state — crazily alive, feeling things that don’t make sense, that aren’t polite, that are awkward and out of control, while feeling them in places we don’t want to be, in places we’re stunned to find ourselves. If she is sentimental, it’s certainly not in the way of, to use one of her favorite phrases, “idiot radio songs” — the mass-produced sentiments we nod along with for lack of a better conduit for the overwhelming. She is writing to give us some other songs to listen to — songs crazily alive with goofiness and poetry, full of electricity and shadows.

Carlene Bauer is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, will be published by HarperCollins in July.

Books mentioned in this review:

Don’t Cry
Bad Behavior