Over the years, Mary Gaitskill has filled page after page of her short stories and novels with compact, dead-on descriptions of women who channel their self-doubt into degrading sexual encounters that they later feel guilty for enjoying. The 10 stories in Gaitskill’s new collection, Don’t Cry, lean heavy on talk about strength, self, and even feminism, to the point that some are more like essays than stories. In “Folk Song,” for example, Gaitskill adopts the second person and weaves connections between three newspaper items, respectively addressing a serial killer appearing on a daytime talk show, a pair of missing zoo turtles, and a woman attempting to set the record for the world’s biggest gang-bang. “Folk Song” is grounded in truth but slips easily into fiction, as Gaitskill has “you” imagine the private thoughts and motivations of everyone involved—including the turtles. She uses shocking imagery and wild fantasy to deftly meditate on common human suffering.
The only real problem with Don’t Cry—and Gaitskill’s work in general—is that she’s become the proverbial hammer turning everything around her into a nail. There’s very little shading to these stories. Gaitskill writes about a man who literally steals souls in the fantastical “Mirror Ball,” and a soldier returning from Iraq in the more stream-of-consciousness “The Arms And Legs Of The Lake,” but in spite of the disparity in genres and styles, both stories—and the stories surrounding them—come back to people’s basic distrust of each other and their inability to find comfort within themselves. As good as these pieces are, it’s best to read them one at a time, with maybe a day or two’s space between.
Yet Gaitskill’s work is valuable enough to overcome all the wallowing in the murk. Few writers have her gift for making the ruthless evisceration of the human condition feel so necessary—even curative. Gaitskill summarizes the philosophical underpinnings of her fiction in “The Agonized Face,” a story about an international literary festival, told from the perspective of a single mother who writes book reviews for an online magazine. As the narrator suffers through reading after reading from writers all preoccupied with rape, she wonders what gives them the license to go so dark, and thinks about her hopes for her own daughter, growing up in a world where sexual violence is prevalent. Then she comes to the unexpected conclusion that once personality and personal experience get stripped away, there are two experiences we all share: transcendent ecstasy and soul-crushing pain. And those two really aren’t so different.