From the powerful pen of Mary Gaitskill comes DON'T CRY, her
first collection of short stories in more than a decade. The tales
here are intense and thought-provoking, compelling and often
tragic, yet filled with a subtle magic. In just 10 stories
Gaitskill explores the spectrum of emotion: lust, greed, sorrow,
hope, anger and many forms of love.
The opening story, “College Town 1980” follows a
group of disaffected young people in Ann Arbor and centers on the
slightly older Dolores, who suffers from mental illness. She lives
with her younger brother, who’s a charming musician, and his
strange girlfriend. Dolores spends her days antagonizing waitresses
and slowly working on a degree. While there is not much action in
the story, there are changes in Dolores as she tries once again to
navigate in society and find comfort and strength. Like many of the
characters here, Dolores is disconnected --- from herself and from
society around her. Gaitskill seems to suggest that this lack of
connection may in fact be the norm.
“The Agonized Face” is a similar character study.
Here the first person narrator is at a literary festival, covering
the event as a journalist, observing the writers and figures around
her. She is at once drawn to and repelled by the “feminist
author” who she hears speak and who reads from her new book.
In silently demanding something particular from the author, and
from each writer there, she reveals more of herself, her desires
and her worldview.
All of these stories allow readers to join the characters at
interesting, though not always obvious, emotional turning points. A
group of people on a train in “The Arms and Legs of the
Lake” confront their ideas about soldiers, war, race and
mental illness, and the eponymous story, “Don't Cry,”
follows a woman who has accompanied her friend to Ethiopia to adopt
a child. She is frustrated and challenged by the experience, and it
becomes, over time, both a cocktail party anecdote and a pivotal
and transformative moment.
“The Little Boy” and “Mirrorball” are a
bit more lyrical and esoteric, lovely even in their depictions of
Gaitskill's style is both mystical and concrete. Her language is
frank and often harsh, but the rhythm of her narrations can be
hypnotic as she delves deep into human wants and needs, pain and
pleasure. This is not an optimistic collection of stories, and the
frankness (about despair, sexuality, loneliness and more) may not
appeal to readers looking for anything cheery or uplifting. And,
while the book is not perfect --- “Folk Song”
never quite coalesces and “A Dream of Men” is almost
forgettable --- it's strengths are an unflinching examination of
humanity and a powerful voice as well as finely drawn characters
who are at once ordinary and extraordinary.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on December 30, 2010