This article originally appeared in print in Kill Your Darlings Issue 1, March 2010. For more great articles like this one subscribe today!

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‘Even a young girl’s shame can be beautiful.’

Veronica

My experience of life as essentially unhappy and uncontrollable,’ American novelist and short story writer Mary Gaitskill once remarked, ‘taught me to examine the way people, including myself, create survival systems and psychologically “safe” places for themselves in unorthodox and sometimes apparently self-defeating ways. These inner worlds, although often unworkable and unattractive in social terms, can have a unique beauty and courage.’

There aren’t many writers who comprehend – and indulge – the voyeurism inherent in reading fiction more than Mary Gaitskill. Most gratifying – and in the same way troubling – is how Gaitskill implicates her readers in what is, basically, a violation: granted insight into the damaged consciousness of ordinary people, we find ourselves cheering for their next blunder or misfortune. And while Gaitskill’s characters, especially her women, are consistently humiliated, hurt and enraged, their hopeless struggle, captured in Gaitskill’s singular prose, is indeed rendered beautiful and courageous. Just as Veronica, eponym of the 2005 novel, casually philosophises, ‘Heureuse et malheureuse – and life is delicious’, Gaitskill’s stories are bittersweet.

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Don’t Cry, published in 2009, is Mary Gaitskill’s third collection of short fiction. Her first, Bad Behaviour (1988), launched her into the literary stratosphere, and carved her a reputation as a writer attuned to sexual disturbance. Bad Behaviour’s stories were finite, urban tales where pornography melded with romance.

Gaitskill has also penned two acclaimed novels – Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991) and Veronica. Two Girls, a clinical and devastating work, shares traits with the short fiction: the psychological corollary of sexual trauma, issues of victimisation, failures in emotional connection. The novel pivots around Dorothy and Justine, who first meet after Dorothy answers a literary classified. After a short, uncomfortable introduction, it is revealed that the women were both molested as children. Gaitskill takes us back to their respective childhoods, where Justine frequently engages in sadomasochist behaviour and Dorothy, overweight and mainly friendless, joins a cult venerating the Ayn Rand-like intellectual figure, Anna Granite.

Veronica marked a departure from Gaitskill’s usual tight prose. While the novel engages with Gaitskill’s earlier thematic preoccupations and in a sense crystallises them, Veronica more consciously examines the relationship between surface and self, culture and fashion, time and memory. Stylistically, the novel exhibits greater verve and breadth – it is non-linear and messy, a blurry dreamscape where memories return bright and scalding.

Narrator Alison, despite her earlier success as a model, is a familiar Gaitskill loser. Once beautiful, her face is ‘broken, with age and pain coming through the cracks’. Now, nearing fifty, she cleans offices for a living, nursing an arm damaged in a car accident and struggling with hepatitis C. Alison reflects on her unlikely friendship many years ago with Veronica, a tactless, middle-aged copy editor with garish attire who died from an AIDS-related illness.

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In many ways, Don’t Cry is much like Gaitskill’s earlier collections, with its crisp prose, and its precise scrutiny of injured lives. The milieus are different and varying, however – and time shifts. We encounter characters in Carterite Michigan, New York, Houston during the Clinton impeachment, Toronto and, in the final story, Ethiopia. The politics have also changed, though only in the way in which they follow more contemporary concerns, like a pervasive media, the perennial war in Iraq and terrorism.

The guilty pleasure offered in Gaitskill’s earlier works is not so manifest in Don’t Cry, either – voyeuristic it may be, the unequivocal sexual element has been somewhat removed. And the narrative threads are less taut; there is almost a distracted quality to the writing, which is not to say it is of a lesser quality – there is simply more background noise in these stories, and stronger undercurrents. The result is a somewhat mellowed collection, furious in places, subdued in others. There is certainly a greater level of self-awareness.

Individually, the stories delight, astonish and inspire. But there are a couple that jar in tone and style. ‘Mirror Ball’, for example, is an antifairy tale where a young man steals girls’ souls; the prose is whimsical and the narrative a little too fey. ‘Folk Song’, which takes a militant (albeit cruelly mischievous) approach to sex and death in the media, feels similarly misplaced among the more introspective narratives.

One of the strongest stories is the opener, ‘College Town, 1980’. Dolores, who also appeared in Because They Wanted To (1997), sits alone in a diner. She wears a scarf, because ‘she recently pulled huge chunks of her hair out’. Dolores suffers through the seemingly arbitrary wrath of waitress, Teresa (she won’t sell her an apricot roll and deliberately bumps against her table). Dolores is painfully aware of her own failings, and the recognition that others perceive her in the same way only intensifies her low self-esteem:

She was an overweight twenty-nine-year-old in stretch pants and a scarf that hid her debased head, mentally ill, and unable to have orgasms, not even with herself, sitting in a college town with nothing to do [. . .] Teresa and Lindsay looked and giggled; Dolores swelled, until she felt like a giantess barely able to hold the delicate little cup and utensils in her horrible fingers.

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Yet Dolores thrives in her unhappiness, wryly observing that ‘[e]verybody wanted to be depressed. But your depression was supposed to be funny, too, and that was what had proved too much for Dolores.’ Her relationship with her own mental illness remains ambivalent; she clings to it while simultaneously disassociating herself from it. She can’t remember ‘why it had ever been satisfying to pull her hair out, or even how it felt, although you’d think it would have hurt. As if to remind herself, she’d actually kept the removed hair in a little box, until the sight of it sickened her one day.’

This behaviour is much like Justine’s from Two Girls. Throughout her early adolescence, Justine shapes herself around painful episodes in her life, confused but compelled by them. She, too, is ‘aware of her humiliation, but it was so far away and has so little to do with her that she couldn’t feel that either. Still, she clung to it fiercely, as if it were her only chance to feel.’ Like Justine, Dolores must, in order to move towards meaningful human connection, journey through further suffering – experiences Gaitskill determines for most of her female characters.

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‘The Old Virgin’ is a brilliant and troubling examination of femininity and female sexuality. Here, Gaitskill takes a fruitful step away from her usual explicit narrative mode. Sexual dysfunction remains (in Gaitskill’s world, what really constitutes sexual normalcy?) but there is also a quiet reflection that is deeply affecting.

Laura works at a Texan medical clinic. One morning she calls up forty-three-year-old Alice for a physical. Alice, it is revealed, has never had any sexual partners.

Laura blinked. ‘Never?’

‘No,’ said Alice. ‘Never.’ She looked at Laura as if she was watching for a reaction, and maybe holding back a smile [. . .] Laura handled her wrist with unusual care. A forty-three-year-old virgin. It was like looking at an ancient sacred artefact, a primitive icon with its face rubbed off. It had no function or beauty, but it still felt powerful.

While this encounter with the ‘old virgin’ compels deliberation in Laura – ‘I respected it’, she declares – it invites more immediate judgment from others. The young receptionist at the clinic rationalises this aberration with the diagnosis ‘she was probably molested when she was little’.

But Gaitskill’s concern does not lie in what it means to be a virgin in today’s hypersexualised Western world. Expectedly sidestepping ingenuity and piety, Gaitskill asks us to examine our own unique relationship with sex. When Laura thinks of the old virgin, she imagines ‘her virginity like a strong muscle between her legs [. . .] making everything in her extra alive’. Laura, in contrast, ‘had not wanted her virginity’, and recollects a Narcotics Anonymous meeting where people talked about the sexually depraved things they’d done on drugs:

Her friend Danielle had told a story about how she’d let a disgusting fat guy whom she hated try to shove a can of root beer up her vagina because, he’d suggested, they might be able to fill cans with heroin and smuggle them.

Laura and Danielle laugh over the story.

But when Laura later recalls a discussion she had as a teenager with her mother, when her mother asked if the experience of losing her virginity had been special – ‘Was it with someone you loved?’ – Laura thinks: ‘What a revolting conversation.’

There is something disconcerting in this truthful evocation of Laura’s strange associations (in this case, murder and paedophilia) with sex – but it’s also very funny. Typical of Gaitskill, the unpleasantness of these thoughts – the shame, the queasy introspection – becomes the stuff of intelligent revelation.

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Like ‘Daisy’s Valentine’ and ‘Connection’ from Bad Behaviour, ‘Today I’m Yours’ is an elegy to emotional disconnection and the impossibility of certain relationships. Years after they’ve broken up, Ella runs into an old girlfriend, Dani. After deciding to meet for a drink, Ella muses on the past, and the failings of their brief romance.

As in Veronica, ‘Today I’m Yours’ also examines the relationship between surface and self, and the destructive idealism trapped in that reflection. Here, Ella captures this concern:

During our breakup conversation, I reminded [Dani] of what she’d said about no one really knowing her. ‘Don’t you see why that is?’ I said. ‘You’ve gone out of your way to create a perfect, seductive surface, and people want to believe in perfection. If they think they see it, they don’t want to look further.

Interestingly, ‘Today I’m Yours’ can be read conjunct with ‘Orchid’ from Because They Wanted To. Here, Patrick (who is, in fact, the brother of Dolores from ‘A College Town, 1980’) re-establishes a friendship with a woman he once dated, years earlier. There remains something ill-defined between the pair, fraught with misunderstanding and incoherence:

She could sense it more than see it. [Patrick] was trying to show himself to her, to explain something. He didn’t have the means, but he was trying silently, with his eyes. And she was trying too. It was as if they were signalling each other from different planets, too far away to read the signals but just able to register that a signal was being sent. They sat and looked at each other, their youth and beauty gone, their selves more bare and the same time more hidden.

It is this trait that is perhaps most prevalent, and most affecting, in Mary Gaitskill’s fiction.

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The final stories of the collection, ‘Description’ and ‘Don’t Cry’, form a neat pairing. ‘Description’, while not playful, is full of self-awareness about literature and Gaitskill’s own creative practice.

Joseph and Kevin, recent creative writing graduates, are on a hike. They debate the merits of particular grands auteurs – Joseph argues, rather nebulously, that Saul Bellow and Philip Roth ‘are great because they’re deep’. Kevin, already published, counters: ‘They write about particular things deeply.’ Reaching the steep, rocky incline, they bicker about the practice of writing, and the wisdom of their lecturer, Janice. Kevin is staunch in his view: ‘[W]hat’s important in writing is what’s happening between characters, what they are doing, not what they look like or what things look like.’

How perfectly this scene elucidates the mainstay of Gaitskill’s fiction – and its inimitable awareness. (Foot firmly in Joseph’s court, Gaitskill then writes mischievously how ‘Kevin’s voice was mild, but feeling came off his slightly hunched back’.) For you’d be hard-pressed to find a contemporary writer more responsive to the complexities and nuance of gesture, appearance, trait and manner. Gaitskill is a writer who finds poignancy in awkwardness; poetry in the ordinary – like, for example, women seated at a bus stop, rendered as cats: ‘pulled tidily into themselves, cross-legged and holding their handbags as if they were about to lick their paws.’

‘Don’t Cry’ is atypical in content and setting. Janice features again: she has travelled with Katya to Addis Ababa, ostensibly to assist her friend in the final stages of adopting an Ethiopian child. Janice is not much use, though – since the death of her husband six months earlier, she has floated through an inebriating grief.

Janice, we get the sense, is a kind of avatar for Gaitskill. Middleaged, she has reached a transitional phase of her life. She is weary and disconnected, lonely and in many ways afraid in a dangerous foreign country.

But Janice is better equipped than most of Gaitskill’s women; she has the means to change herself. It is this recognition that is most empowering for her. In this Gaitskill has grown more generous, and Don’t Cry ends on a positive, almost contented note. As Janice returns to America, a small boy in her lap, she resolves: ‘I will thrive.’