On its surface The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg is the…
What has always drawn me to the short stories of Mary Gaitskill is that she spends a lot of time writing about the struggle women have with their intelligence and their sexuality and how giving into one always feels like subverting the other. This is a struggle a lot of intelligent women have because giving in to sex means turning off your brain and that’s scary. Plus, it can get you into a lot of trouble.
Don’t Cry, Gaitskill’s third short story collection, isn’t about struggle. In fact, I’m not entirely sure what it’s about. Not that collections are about any one thing, but usually have a sort of common theme that ties the stories together (like a record comprised of different songs).
As an avowed Gaitskill fangirl, I find myself floundering a bit when it comes to talking about this book.
There were stories I actively disliked: “The Arms and Legs of the Lake” a story told from multiple points of view by three characters riding on a train which felt like a writing exercise assigned in Short Stories 101; “Folk Song” a story about a woman reacting to and re-imagining the stories in a newspaper which I didn’t even bother to finish.
There were stories I actively loved: “College Town, 1980” about a young woman struggling with, well, being a young woman and blaming her unhappiness of situations and circumstances around her, ultimately discovering that the answer to everything is inside herself; “Don’t Cry” about a widow who journeys to Ethiopia with a friend who is looking to adopt a baby.
I really liked the story “Don’t Cry” when I first listened to it in The New Yorker podcast this past summer. The writing is vivid, full visceral images, and cuts right to the bone, it’s Gaitskill at her best. She turns an unyielding eye on her characters offering them no sympathy and by doing that makes them human and worthy of our sympathy.
I enjoyed reading “Don’t Cry” in the collection even more because of the story that appears before it. “Description” features two characters who know and talk about the main character from “Don’t Cry.” It gave me a new perspective on the story, and fleshed out that main character even more.
It pains me to say this, but Don’t Cry is not Gaitskill’s strongest work. There seems to be something missing. Maybe it’s the anger or sense of rebellion. There always seemed to be a current of quiet, seething rage in her stories, a sort of fuck you feeling. It made her stories feel alive on the page, living, breathing things. The stories in this collection feel a little complacent and searching for a point.
And yet still, a kinda crappy Gaitskill story is still better than 1/2 the books being published today.
Want more Gaitskill?
- Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin on Gaitskill
- Charting the Changes in Mary Gatiskill’s Characters
- When the Whip Comes Down