Mary Gaitskill’s stories have always been a long time coming; about a decade has separated each of Gaitskill’s collections since her now-classic 1988 debut, Bad Behavior. Grace Paley—a famously slow writer of stories—once wrote that there was “a long time in me between knowing and telling,” but in Gaitskill’s case it feels as if it is the knowing itself that has taken time, and that each of these densely wrought stories of grief and unknowing has been inhabited for quite a while.
This is to say that with all their descriptive and narrative richness, the stories in Don’t Cry (Vintage, 240 pages, $15) feel less crafted than experienced, told in a wry human voice that propels itself swiftly, likably, to a place of deep discomfort. In “College Town, 1980,” the collection’s opening story, the main character’s insecurities manifest terribly in her own descriptions (“Her face was fleshy, her nose had a bulby tip, and her forehead was low”) and in her cruel or self-pitying portrayals of others’ flaws and slights. Yet, one cannot maintain readerly distance from the aptly named Dolores. By the end the reader is implicated in every failure until grotesquery and weakness become life’s main currency; when Dolores teaches herself not to “feel anything inside herself now but flat metallic strength,” the tone is far from triumphant.
Just as in other recent short-form masters such as Joy Williams or Deborah Eisenberg, the density and claustrophobia of this experience can occasionally feel like too much to bear, no matter how leavened by gallows wit—as if in their understanding of everyday calamity these stories could incite rather than palliate insanity. The world as it is understood here is awful, ecstatic and continually new; it is described in tender, precise detail that is either broken up by oddly colloquial terseness or punctured by metaphor incongruous in its violence. Gaitskill does not so much get to the heart of the matter as rip out the tender organ and make you feel the blood rushing into the cavity.
Of course, it is often the details themselves that are violent—a knife fight, an infant with AIDS, a woman planning a gangbang while dreaming of murder—but these, too, can act with the subterranean authority of metaphor. In the title story, death and sadness do not, as they might in a magazine feature, provide a merely sobering context for the adoption of an Ethiopian baby; rather, they are made to seem essential to the pursuit of any out-of-the-way happiness.
Though these stories may eschew easy comforts, they remain beautiful; their true comfort is of the hard-won variety that can only be afforded by truth.
SEE IT: Mary Gaitskill reads from Don’t Cry at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, March 8. Free.