Mary Gaitskill is a powerful writer. Her way with words is but part of the explanation. Her powers of observation and ability to interpret are probably more important. And she has the ability to pose or indicate relevant questions, without feeling the urge to answer them as well.
Her stories in Don’t Cry raise a multitude of fundamental questions, cast in the context of struggles by seemingly very real people; people with flesh and blood who struggle with the stuff real people derive pleasure and pain from: Loss, love, sexuality, memories, feelings and forgiveness, to mention a few.
The stories in this collection are: College Town 1980, Folk Song, A Dream of Men, The Agonized Face, Mirror Ball, Today I’m Yours, The Little Boy, The Arms and Legs of the Lake, Description, and Don’t Cry.
The title story, “Don’t Cry”, is my personal favorite in this collection of great stories. A creative writing professor, Janice, and a girlfriend go to Addis Ababa to adopt a baby. Not the easiest spot to go to if you want that, you think? Right! It is not. A bad bureaucracy and robbery, a strenuous trip overall awaits them, and for Janice her private grief and mourning as well.
You know from the get-go that there will be suffering and misery in these stories. Page one of the first story, “College Town, 1980″, shows you that. And indeed, Gaitskill does tell depressing tales. But they are oh so real. Extremely good stories that are to the point and mostly dead-on – stories that you feel are in a strange sense true and that bring out what you know must the salient aspects of the tales. So true, to the point and real that they make you cry, and fortunately also sometimes laugh out loud. Or make you want to smack the characters over their heads – to tell them to straighten up their minds, to not do what they’re doing. Only you can’t. All you can do is observe, listen, think and feel. And that’s what you do when you read this book.
The stories in Don’t Cry push the boundaries of fiction. They are populated with real and peculiar characters, and their darkest recesses are exposed to us. These are stories told with an almost clinical precision and seen by an unwavering pitiless eye, by an author with a very unsettling ability to turn readers into voyeurs. And who can write about the abysses of the human mind and the logical and emotional flaws of her characters in a way that holds your attention – that really grabs hold of it.
The people in this book have problems. They can’t connect and they can’t solve their problems. And you and I can’t solve their problems for them, even though the book may make us want to . But we can understand a little better, get a little wiser. To me, that’s what Gaitskill does. Adds depth. Gaitskill penetrates the skin of her characters with her scratching nails. And my skin and your skin as well. Don’t Cry is a book of fierce artistry. When you’re done reading, this book will stay with you for a while, and you will know you have just met an extraordinary writer.