Don't Cry
 by Mary Gaitskill

Pantheon Books
2009, Hardback
First collection? No

Mary Gaitskill is also the author of Because They Wanted To (nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award) and the novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin. Veronica was nominated for the National Book Award. Gaitskill is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. She lives in New York.

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"I had just published a book that was like a little box with monsters inside it. I had spent five dreary years writing it in a tiny apartment with a sink and a stove against one wall and a mattress against the other, building the box and its inhabitants out of words that ran, stumbled, posed and pirouetted across cheap notepaper like a swarm of hornets was after them. I neglected my family. I forgot how to talk to people. I paced the room while feverish tinny songs poured from a transistor radio with a broken antenna and fantasized about the social identity that might be mine if the book were to succeed."

Reviewed by Annie Clarkson

Don’t Cry is an astonishing collection of stories with ensemble casts and vast reaches of emotional subject matter.

These stories contain wonderfully specific details that pinpoint character and place and emotional state. We learn what obsesses these characters, their wonderings, their memories, their losses and joys. Mary Gaitskill introduces her characters with such economy, yet we learn whole lifetimes of information about them, never feeling that the information is too much, but on the contrary, it’s as if we know these people, oh yea that was Angelique, the "chunky redhead with a beautiful face: big lips, scarred skin and green eyes that were watchful and passive at the same time, like an animals. Except her eyes were sad too." Or, you know, Kevin and Joseph, "became friends in junior high because both were bookish boys obsessed by horror comics in which bad things happen to girls until the hero comes".

We meet a girl with OCD and depression trying to get by in a college town, veterans on a train journey, a woman trying to adopt a baby in Addis Abiba. We’re not sure what is going to happen in the story. They might seem to meander here and there, giving us different viewpoints, exploring day to day issues, what a character is noticing around them, and then wham. Gaitskill delivers a killer line like: "Two weeks later, his mother had called and said she had cancer." End of paragraph.

These stories are about cancer, Alzheimer’s, war, rape and prostitution. But they are also about the tender moments between a daughter and her father, or friends or lovers, the tiny moments that make a single experience illuminate into a whole lifetime of meaning. A relationship between a young man, his friend and their professor, mirrors the relationship between the man, his brother and their mother. A six year old boy in an airport connects a woman with her grief for her deceased husband and the six year old boy inside her husband (the age he was when his father died). Teaching a small deprived Ethiopian boy to walk reminds a woman of how she helped her husband get into bed, toilet, and walk while he was ill with Alzheimer’s.

These stories have complex depth. Mary Gaitskill manages mammoth issues within each narrative, spanning a lifetime or many lifetimes, novelesque depth in only ten or more pages.

So in The Agonized Face, a writer is working on an article about a feminist who gives a talk about rape, prostitution and female sexual power, without any of the "agony". Yet beneath this story, she is recalling an interview she did with a topless dancer; how her ten year old daughter wants to dye her hair blonde like Gwen Stefani; her fears about wanting to protect her daughter; a memory of a girl way back in high school who was photographed sucking a boy’s dick, a photo which went around the school; she recalls sex with her husband before she had their daughter; a talk show about rape; a strange anime cartoon; the grandfather in a novel who "fucks a slut". All these thoughts and memories are shaped around the changing feelings she has towards the feminist author.

This kind of fiction gets me in the throat. It’s physical in a way, invasive, like a hand reaching down into the gut and pulling something out.

Third person narratives are just as intimate as first. Some of them are confrontational, angry, and deeply sad. Some are difficult to read, not because they are badly written, quite the contrary, they are brilliantly written, but because of the matter-of fact or confrontational way that difficult subject matter is approached. An Old Virgin contains violent dreams and thoughts and the story opens with the character saying "ugly cunt". Folk Song has three news stories intertwined in the narrator's mind: a woman sleeps with 1000 men in a row, a confessed murderer appears on a talk show, and two turtles are stolen. It is emotionally raw and at times disturbingly graphic.

But, in the face of all this hard-edged subject matter there is sheer poetry. Description like "the air was heavy with the burnt tang of fresh laid asphalt and hot salted nuts", or "a neighborhood of bars and burlesque clubs, a place of cockeyed streets like crooked mouths lined with doors like jack o lantern teeth." But, also, a poetic approach to story-telling, where stories are metaphors like in Mirror Ball, an extraordinary story about a boy who steals a girl's soul without realizing it. Its intimacy is staggering, yet we are kept grounded by the crackheads and vagrant kids in the park and other details such as "The ragged man who was not homeless. He had a room in a tiny rotting hotel with a hot plate, a buzzing box refrigerator and stacks of magazines piled up against a wall."

For me, this collection is what short fiction is about. It exposes truths about life, depravity, the body, human weakness in simply stated way. It takes us on a journey that is not predictable, but makes sense. It speaks to us, gives us some kind of understanding about life, the people around us, the struggles we have. It entices us to search for the illuminating moments in our own lives.

I want to say something about The Arms and Legs of the Lake, one of the strongest stories in the collection (although there are so many strong stories in Don’t Cry it is difficult to say). This story takes us with a cast of characters on a train journey where the real main character is war, or the recovery from war, how we deal with veterans, and the impact of returning to a country that seems changed after everything that has been experienced through fighting a war. There are many voices in this story, each one connects with us, each one brings a different view so that our sympathies are drawn equally amongst them, no hero or anti-hero, just a community of people struggling on with each other in the best way that they can. It struck me as the antithesis of what many short stories are, gathering together all these different complex voices and throwing them in a moving train together, but not to see what happens, but to watch the fallout.

I urge you to get a copy of this book. It is short fiction at its best.

Read an excerpt from this collection in the New York Times

Annie Clarkson is a poet and short story writer living in Manchester, UK. Her chapbook of prose poems Winter Hands was published by Shadow Train Books in 2007. Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies, magazines and online, including Brace (Comma), Unsaid Undone (Flax Books), Transmission, Ouroboros Review, Succour, Mslexia, Dreamcatcher, Cake, and Pank magazine.

Annie's other Short Reviews: Anthony De Sa "Barnacle Love"

Laura Chester "Rancho Weirdo"

Daniel Grandbois "Unlucky Lucky Days"

Josephine Rowe "East of Here, Close to Water"

Mark Illis "Tender"

"One World Anthology"

Samuel Ligon "Drift and Swerve"

Alice Zorn "Ruins and Relics"

Ailsa Cox "The Real Louise"

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