Bad girls

Mary Gaitskill carries on
By DANA KLETTER  |  April 28, 2009

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COLD, LOVING EYE: Suffering is everywhere in these stories, but so is compassion.

Don’t Cry | By Mary Gaitskill | Pantheon | 240 pages | $23.95
Mary Gaitskill's new book of stories starts in Ann Arbor and finishes in Addis Ababa, begins with "College Town 1980," an account of a circle of students trapped in an endless semester, and ends with the title story, in which two single, middle-aged women travel through Ethiopia in search of a baby to buy, since no adoption agency would find them fit.

People tend to make much of what they think of as Mary Gaitskill's fictional realm, a place of sexual transgression, of violence, violation, rape, and sado-masochism, and her female characters, the violated, the used, the users. She is credited for seeing into dark places behind the polite façade, and for pitilessness. And yet in Don't Cry, her compassion is expansive, and these 10 stories are full of love.

In the romantic allegory "Mirror Ball," a young woman picks up a big-fish-in-a-small-pond musician. They wind up in her bed, where she "recklessly unfurled her soul. He felt like a man in a small boat under which a huge sea creature has passed, causing the boat to pitch gently." Back home, "He dropped her soul on the floor, where it quickly became invisible to him." It turns out he's "regularly made off with prize bits" of women's souls. Yet his soul has been splintered too, in the game of loss his mother taught him after his father abandoned them, an echo of Freud's "fort/da" game with a Beatles soundtrack, "Hey, you've got to hide your love away." It's a trick of withholding she teaches him inadvertently when she puts him to bed at night: "One half of her smiled and bent to kiss him, and the other vanished in the dark like a cat." "Mirror Ball" is a long story, and the conceit can't quite support it, but there are moments of sublime beauty in the mix of high and low, the tale of two souls wrestling in a darkened room alongside the everyday account of the one-night stand, of the wronged girl and careless rock boy.

"An Old Virgin" is a day in the life of Laura, ex-junkie and now 40-year-old health-clinic worker, shortly after the death of her father. Rising up into the narrative, like that sea creature in "Mirror Ball," and submerging under the details of her work day is Laura's grief and love, her memories of the final days of her father's life, of lying on the fold-out couch in the living room beside her sister, keeping vigil. The dullness of her job and the meanness of her colleagues is forgotten when a new patient, a 43-year-old virgin, comes in for a check-up. This woman's condition — her miraculously intact body, the virginity Laura pictures as "a tiny red flame in the pit of her body" — ignites Laura's wonder. She imagines her critical father's response to the middle-aged virgin: protectiveness, an "embarrassed tenderness." "He would have a feeling of honor and frailty, but there would be something sad in it, too, because she wasn't young."

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