The innocuous packaging of Mary Gaitskill's new short story collection is the design equivalent of Mother Nature giving the adorable koala bear a set of enormous fucking claws. A pinkish cover, a close-up on a long-lashed eye, the placating title Don't Cry—it's easy to imagine a reader lured in by the chick-lit cover, only to find themselves ensnared in Gaitskill's dangerous, sophisticated prose. Don't struggle—she'll get to you either way.
Gaitskill's writing is formally experimental and emotionally ruthless, and her third collection of stories contains some of her finest work to date. In perhaps the most provocative story in the collection, "The Agonized Face," the narrator is a female reporter assigned to write an article about a prostitute-turned-"feminist author" who's reading at a local literary festival. The author reads a story of a sexual encounter, using language that the reporter describes as "hard and sharp, the kind of words that think everything is funny." The reporter is angered by the casual frankness with which the feminist discusses her sex life, and by the implicit denial of the dark and powerful aspects of female sexuality. The narrator herself, though, is not entirely reliable, as her disordered ideas about the feminist author are colored by defensiveness, and protective feelings toward her own daughter. It's a confusing, thought-provoking, impressive study of how contradictory our ideas about sex can be—is it magic or commerce? Primal and life-giving, or healthy fun after a few drinks?
"The Arms and Legs of the Lake" ranges up and down the aisle of a train car, skipping from perspective to perspective as a conversation between a well-meaning white woman and a black, mentally ill Iraq vet attracts the attention of other passengers on the train. "Did any of [the Iraqis] seem angry?" the woman asks, as nearby passengers marvel at her gall. "Angry at us. For tearing up the country and killing them." Another story begins: "Mrs. Bea Davis walked through an enormous light-fluxing corridor of the Detroit airport, whispering to no one visible: 'I love you. I love you so much.'" These stories, like all of the stories in Don't Cry, are anchored in truthfulness without purporting to express absolute truth. My hopes were high for this new collection from one of my favorite writers, and Gaitskill exceeded them.