Don’t Cry

Mary Gaitskill walks into a bar, accompanied by no Irishmen, rabbis, ducks, or humorous guide dogs, and — the place empties. Choked-off laughter hanging in the air; on the counter the bartender’s cloth abandoned mid-swipe. Receding sound of scuttling feet. Outside it’s late winter, with dirty snow piled in the streets like the residue of some vast industrial process. She sweeps the scene with a hard and genderless eye. Heh heh. Everybody’s afraid of her.

Well, I exaggerate of course. Gaitskill is probably an excellent woman to have a drink with, precisely because her fiction is so damned harsh — writing works like that sometimes. But her professional aura, at least, is forbidding. Since Bad Behavior appeared in 1988, she has been the laureate of everything nameless, faulty, and unredeemed in American manners. Harps do not chime nor bluebirds trill when her men and women get together; instead we hear rough sex through the drywall, and the noise of meshing pathologies. Trouble, always trouble; her avenging muse is merciless. Her short story “Secretary” was made into the 2002 film of the same name — not a great film, although it supplied the culture with the image of James Spader, taut-jawed and dragon-nostrilled, bending Maggie Gyllenhaal over his desk to give her a good spanking.

“There’s no love in you because there’s no sex in you,” a man tells a woman in “College Town, 1980,” the first story in Gaitskill’s new collection Don’t Cry. In context, in the floating world of dropouts, pill poppers, gas passers, and ambulant trainwrecks that the story conjures up, a remark like this is mere domestic chit-chat — pillow talk, almost. It continues: “Sex is light and fertility and life and communication! You only have this … pornography and submission and blackness and death! You’re like a faggot!” (“You ass-wipe,” rejoins the woman, conversationally.)

“Folk Song” examines a single page of newsprint: on it are items about the torture/murder of a mother and her daughter, the robbery of two giant turtles from the Bronx Zoo, and the preparations of a porn star for a 1,000-man gang bang. Might these apparently disparate violations be somehow related? They might indeed, as Gaitskill cues up a reverie in her own special style — the style of Gender-Studies-on-Acid. “When she began to have sex with boys, it was as if she were picking up a doll marked ‘Girl’ and a doll marked ‘Boy’ and banging them together, hoping to unite herself. As she grew older, the woman inside her became more insatiable and the man more angry. He became angry enough to kill.” As for the poor turtles, “it is likely have been sold to laboratory scientists who want to remove their shells so that they can wire electrodes to the turtles’ skin in order to monitor their increasing terror at the loss of their shells.” Likely? It’s a freaking certainty.

But Gaitskill doesn’t overwrite. On the contrary, one feels that even at her most gaudily negative she is restraining herself with some severity: her sentences make sense because she has demanded that they make sense. “The fog lolled in the sky, sluggish as a fat white woman on rumpled sheets.” This is terrible, of course, but then — when you give it a moment’s thought — so is “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table…” These strained, alien images win our trust somehow: their closeness to the inexpressible authenticates them. And they can just as easily be beautiful: “The plane turned on the runway like a live thing slowly turning in heavy water.”

Gaitskill is more than half poet. The natural state of her writing is a kind of scalding fluidity, a slipping between the outer world and the unconscious that achieves its triumph, in Don’t Cry, in the story “Mirror Ball” — which also represents the consummation of her prolonged literary dalliance with that excellent weirdo Hans Christian Andersen. The Danish fabulist has pranced through Gaitskill’s work on nutcracker legs (his “Little Match Girl” was a motif in both Two Girls, Fat and Thin and Veronica), and in “Mirror Ball” she appropriates his spooky ultra-metaphorical late style to narrate the story of a girl who accidentally, and with no idea of what she is doing, gives a boy her soul. The boy is equally clueless: “He weighed her good qualities as he walked home in the interesting light of 4:00 a.m., but he did it like a man counting pocket change, yawning and half-interested. When he got home, Hunger yawned, too. He dropped her soul on the floor, where it quickly became invisible to him. He forgot her.” But the soul will not be so neglected — the story goes on, breeding its perceptions, a thing of sustained hallucinatory intensity and an absolute knockout.

Don’t Cry is beautifully sequenced, like a vintage rock album, and “Mirror Ball” is the sprawling jam that completes the wreckage of Side One. Side Two is soberer and more measured, a journey into meaning — into love, unexpectedly. “The Arms and Legs of the Lake” jump-cuts the interior monologues of a group of railway passengers as they react in their various ways to a slightly out-of-control Iraq war vet. (“Tell me brother, can you — what is this body of water out the window here?” “This is the Hudson River.” “It is? I thought it was the Great Lakes.”) Reality deepens around this man, but he is clearly, at this moment, beyond saving. Salvation remains a possibility, though: the title story, the last in the book, is a grueling and moving account of an attempt by two American women to transact the adoption of an Ethiopian baby boy. They are smart, experienced, and illusionless, and in the streets and orphanages of Addis Ababa they are put through purgatorial fire. Plenty of stuff is charred and drops away, but life, gristly indomitable life, turns out to be what’s left over. Who knew?