Sunday, August 05, 2012

Don't Cry (2009)

I spent a good deal of time believing Mary Gaitskill was a better story writer than novelist, chiefly because there were two books of (very good) stories to one flawed novel that I loved in spite of its flaws—even because of some of its flaws. Veronica changed that calculation, though I'm not entirely sure it isn't flawed too in its ways. But it's such an impressive leap of imagination and memory that it's at least the equal of either collection, let alone any one story. Now Don't Cry seems to take that tilt another step in. Gaitskill is growing older and more ponderous like the rest of us—that's a big part of what made Veronica great—but it also means her crystalline prose can become tangled as it attempts to pin down endless nuance. The arduous quantum mechanics of precision writing will have its toll, and many patches in these stories feel a good bit fussed over. It's reminiscent of the arc of Henry James's progression, perhaps, which I suppose means I should give them another chance. Some I found a chore to plow through—"Folk Song," "Mirror Ball," "The Arms and Legs of the Lake." Others, such as "Today I'm Yours" and "The Little Boy," work reasonably well. "College Town, 1980" was more disappointing because it started so well. "The Agonized Face" is possessed of interesting ideas, and thus a bit arid and intellectualized. I like the last two stories best, I think, "Description" and "Don't Cry." They are linked, but in an odd way, unfolding as two very different—and very differently approached and told—episodes from the life of a creative writing instructor. In the first she has a fairly minor, offstage role. In the second she is present as a supporting player, albeit a key one, and one whose own biography intrudes on and affects, sometimes directly, the development of events. Gaitskill works best for me when she is dealing with the negative space between human cruelty, emotional distance, and the longing for connection. Almost entirely gone here are the references to sadomasochism—as lifestyle, as orientation, as underpinning philosophy—and I find that I miss them. Maybe this represents a kind of maturity for her, but I still miss them.

In case it's not at the library.

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