Mary Gaitskill is perhaps best known for her first collection of stories, Bad Behavior (1988), which included an often-anthologized, shocking tale about masochism titled “Romantic Weekend” and a story that was adapted into the 2002 film Secretarystarring Maggie Gyllenhaal as a mentally ill woman who cuts herself and James Spader as a dominating boss with obsessive tendencies. The two stories alone gave Gaitskill a reputation as a literary bad girl, which was furthered by her revelation that she had been a stripper for a couple of years. In “The Wolf in the Tall Grass,” an essay collected in Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction (1998), Gaitskill says that she writes because, even when her subject is pain and horror, she, like many others, has a powerful desire to say, “Yes, I see. I feel. I hear. This is what it’s like.”
Gaitskill’s stories in Don’t Cry, her third collection, do not present clearly delineated narratives. Rather, they resemble essayistic descriptions of ensemble groups, each of which is positioned around one central character’s sense of disengagement and despair. The opening story, “College Town, 1980” focuses on four young people living together in Ann Arbor, Michigan, just after the election of Ronald Reagan. The central character, Dolores, has been hospitalized for mental illness and has to wear a scarf because she has taken to pulling out large clumps of her hair. She lives in a communal house with her younger brother Patrick, his girlfriend Lily, and a twenty-one-year-old philosophy student named Mark. The story has no plot; the underlying tension stems from Dolores’s depression and the fact that she blames her unhappiness on her former boyfriend’s having dumped her. She also blames her father, an adulterous alcoholic, and her mother, who is “murderously unhappy.”
Dolores feels particularly persecuted by a waitress in a restaurant she frequents who seems to hate her for no apparent reason. Another submerged conflict in the story is the tension between Patrick and Lily, who are threatening to break up. Dolores sympathizes with Lily, with whom she has desultory conversations about strength and weakness. Lily says that she was glad when Reagan was elected, even though she hates him, because he stands for strength. The story ends with Dolores thinking she will work on her research papers and graduate, feeling that she is strongbut strong like a bombed-out building, stripped and impervious. This is less a story than it is a set piece about young people who feel victimized, helpless, and trapped in a stagnant situation at a certain transitional point in American society.
“An Old Virgin” focuses on Laura, a woman filled with self-loathing who has a habit of walking around her apartment muttering about how ugly and valueless she is. Even while she seems to cope with everyday activities and her job at a medical clinic, she feels like a bug tunneling through the earth with fragile insect legs. Her father is very ill, emaciated, and fragile. He was abused as a child, and he abused his own children in turn. The story’s titular character and central metaphor is a forty-three-year-old woman who is given a preliminary examination by Laura. Because the woman is a virgin, Laura wonders what it would be like to be a virgin at her own age of forty. She imagines virginity as the source of her strength, making everything in her extra alive. However, she actually feels that, although her body is alive with strong feelings, the feelings seem broken or incomplete.
After reading such stories about women who either feel sorry for themselves or hate themselves, one may find the title of the story “The Agonized Face” predictable and inevitable. Here, the unhappy women who seem to be Gaitskill’s obsessive focus are closer to her own persona as a writer and commentator on contemporary society. The divorced mother of a ten-year-old girl, the narrator has been assigned to write a piece on a feminist author who is giving a talk at an annual literary festival.
The author at the festival, who was once a prostitute, has described prostitutes as feminist fighters against patriarchy. She talks about how she has been treated unfairly by the media, insisting thatalthough she can understand that it is exciting to imagine eccentric writers engaging in outlandish behaviorshe is not such a person. She complains that, by isolating qualities that seem exciting and scary and projecting them onto public figures, media consumers deny those figures’ humanity and cheat...
(The entire section is 1873 words.)