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 sad realities.
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