Saturday, June 27, 2009

Mary Gaitskill's Collection "Don't Cry "is a Bit of a Bore

Don’t Cry, Mary Gaitskill’s third collection of stories, which came out earlier this year, was a painful read for me. I did not find the stories so shocking as others have, but I did find them mostly tiresome.

I used to teach the story “Romantic Weekend,” from Gairskill’s first collection Bad Behavior that was published to some buzz about her “bad girl” image some twenty years ago. “Romantic Weekend” features some soft-core wannabe sadomasochism and posed some interesting questions about the male desire for dominance and the popular image of woman as submissive victim. However, the story had little to do with classic literary sadomasochism, which is always more drama than dominance, but it raised the hackles of some and titillated others. Bad Behavior also included a story that Director Steven Shainberg used as the basis for his 2002 movie Secretary, which starred Maggie Gyllenhaal as a woman who cut herself and James Spader as a dominating boss—a cast made in heaven for a match made in hell.

Don’t Cry has elicited such Book Review headlines as “Gaitskill’s Tales Draw Blood,” “Peep Show of Violence and Self-Contempt,” “Pitiless Eye,” Princess of Darkness,” “Walk in the Dark,” and “Mary, Mary, Ever So Contrary.” But this is not so much “Naughty Mary” as it is “Wearisome Mary.”

The stories are not clearly delineated narratives; rather, they are more like essayistic descriptions of ensemble groups positioned around one central character’s sense of disengagement and despair. I will comment on only one story, “The Agonized Face,” for it seems central and typical. 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 was once a prostitute and has described prostitutes as feminist fighters against patriarchy. She talks about how she has been treated unfairly by the media, insisting that although she can understand it is exciting to imagine a kooky person off doing unimaginable stuff, that she is not that person. She complains that when we isolate qualities that seem exciting and scary and project them on a person, we deny that person her humanity and cheat ourselves of life’s complexity.

One wonders if this is a reference to the initial public interest in Gaitskill’s work after Bad Behavior was published, which created a great deal of publicity buzz about the fact that she had once been a stripper. When an interviewer asked her if she had ever turned a trick, without hesitation she replied that she had, earning Gaitskill a reputation that perhaps she has since regretted.

Much of “The Agonized Face” reads like a personal essay on whether feminists have made girls into sluts who think they have to have sex all the time or whether they have overprotected them into thinking they have been raped when they were just having sex. Various images of Gaitskill’s own persona crop up in the story. For example, when the narrator tells about interviewing a topless dancer, a desiccated blonde with desperate intelligence burning in her eyes, who is big on Hegel and Nietzsche, one is tempted to turn to the jacket cover of the Don’t Cry for the picture of Gaitskill staring out at the reader both defensively and belligerently. Recalling another story she once wrote about a TV talk show that depicted stories of rape victims, the narrator wonders if the feminist author was suggesting that rape and being a prostitute were the same thing, concluding, in her essayistic tone, that for the purposes of her “discussion,” they are close enough.

The article the narrator finally writes takes the feminist writer to task for pretending that female humiliation is an especially smart kind of game and casually mentioning her experience with prostitution, while leaving out the “agonized face” of women’s humiliation in modern society. In her article, she metaphorically chases the author down an alley, to stone her and force her to show the face that she denies. For she insists the “agonized face” is one of the few mysteries left to women and must be protected.

Generally, I found most of Gaitskill’s stories didactic and tedious, rambling and discursive. In an essay in the collection Why I Write, she says she writes because even when it is about pain and horror, she has a powerful desire to say, “Yes, I see. I feel. I hear. This is what it’s like.” I am, of course, very interested in finding “what it’s like,” but I don’t need to be subjected to a lecture disguised as a short story. I would like to hear what women readers of this blog think about the stories of Mary Gaitskill.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Completing PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories: 2009

Well, my “road trip” with family has now ended—after 34 days and 15 states on the road in a big RV with in-laws and an aging dog. I did not have time to do blog entries on the road, but did finish reading the PEN/O. Henry Prize stories: 2009. The more stories I read, the less impressed with them I was. I began to wonder if the editor and the publishers were more interested in creating a politically correct mix of cultural and ethnic stories than in choosing the “best stories of the year.”

I am, of course, interested in the trials and values of cultures other than my own. But if my primary literary interest were in cultural “information,” I could get that from a variety of other sources. Surely, we come to good fiction for more than that. Manuel Munoz’s “Tell Him About Brother John” creates an interesting character and an engaging voice, but it seems primary about the cultural difference between “here” and “Over There.” Viet Dinh’s “Substitutes” consists primarily of interesting information about how those who stayed after the fall of Saigon, especially children, have fared under the Communists. Paul Yoon’s “And We Will Be There” seems to fall into the same trap of other stories of Chinese and Japanese characters in this collection—presenting characters as simple, childlike figures. I wish someone would explain to me why authors so often present Asian people in this way.

Another issue I would like to raise in this post is how stories “illustrate” certain ideas. Judy Troy’s “The Order of Things” seems so purposely calculated to illustrate the St. Thomas quote--“The important thing is not to think much but to love much”—that the initial interest I had in the two characters is obliterated when, at the end, I realized that they are only two dimensional illustrative figures. Nadine Gordimer’s “The Beneficiary,” on the other hand, is so complexly woven around the complex ideas of “acting” and “being” that when I get to the end and read the punch line—“Nothing to do with DNA”—I don’t feel that the characters are reduced to mere illustrations. I am engaged by the complexity of Charlotte’s position between her actor father and the man who has acted as her father.

I liked Paul Theroux’s “Twenty-Four Stories,” for each one of them was so filled with thematic or dramatic potential that they illustrated the central short story characteristic of “much in little.” But then I have always liked Theroux’s work.

I have never cared much for Marisa Silver’s work, however. One of the most important aspects of the short story to which I am always sensitive is whether the author seems to really care for his or her characters. The brilliance of Chekhov, for example, is that he never condescended to the people in his stories, regardless of their background or weaknesses. Silver, in my opinion, does not seem to care for her characters, merely using them for her own narrow purposes.

I enjoyed “Darkness,” even though I thought the question/answer technique was aggravating. I liked it for the same reasons I have always liked fantasy fiction. It illustrates an interesting idea, while allowing a little escape from everyday realism.

Finally, there is Junot Diaz’s “Wildwood,” which is actually the second chapter of his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for 2008. The central character and point of view is Oscar’s sister, who is locked in a battle of wills with her dominating mother. Laura Furman, the editor of the collection, obviously likes stories of mother/daughter conflicts, as this is not the only one in the book.

I liked the chapter. I cannot really call it a short story, even though The New Yorker paid Diaz a lot of money for it as a short story. Perhaps I should say that while it is not a very good short story, it may indeed be a pretty good chapter of a longer work. I am currently reading The Brief Wondrous Life and find myself caught up in the life of Oscar—an overweight DR nerd and social misfit. I must confess, I was not a great fan of Diaz’s first book, the highly praised collection of stories entitled Drown. The book created a great cultural buzz when it was published several years ago, and everyone eagerly awaited Diaz’s first novel, which was a long time coming. According to the critics, it was worth the wait. I don’t know yet. As I read it, I like the voices I hear, but it has all the characteristics of the novel as a form with which I get impatient—it is just filled with “stuff.”

I did my duty and read all the stories in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories: 2009 collection. But I was disappointed. Surely of the hundreds of stories published in English each year, there are better ones than these. I am hoping for better when Best American Short Stories comes out in early October.

I promise to be more regular on this blog now that my summer road trip is over. Thanks to all those who read it.I hope it is both interesting and helpful.