Pantheon: 230 pp., $23.95
In the stories of Mary Gaitskill, characters confront one another on a stage where ideas struggle to the death. There are never answers, only the honing of questions. Should strength prevail over feelings? Does holding forth on the subject of female sexuality drain it of mystical power? Can one forgive the failures of human love? The stories in her latest collection, "Don't Cry," address unflinchingly the conflict between our actions and desires, our losses during war and peacetime, the charged dynamics between men and women.
The collection's most emotionally wrenching story is the title piece tucked away at the end of the book. "Don't Cry" concerns Janice, a creative writing professor who tags along to Addis Ababa with a girlfriend seeking to adopt a baby. The trip is fraught with bureaucratic obstacles and heartbreak. Mourning a beloved husband who passed away from Alzheimer's, Janice imagines the sickly baby as occupying the space between the living and the dead. The story pivots on a moment of grace, when an Ethiopian man returns her stolen wedding rings and tells her not to cry. Janice realizes that there are political complexities outside her private anguish but says, "In the middle of my walking, war broke out, and the path between the living and the dead opened up and everything dear to me fell down the crack. I fell, too, and I might've fallen forever -- but the old man came and said, 'Stop.' And I stopped."
In another powerful tale of mourning, "Little Boy," Bea Davis is on the way back from visiting a married daughter. Bea's mind flits in and out of memories of childhood, of being a young mother outside Detroit, of her recently deceased indifferent husband, and of her two daughters, growing distant from her both geographically and ideologically. What does a life add up to? "Loving, conceiving, giving birth: if human love failed, it was bacteria swimming in a dish, mysterious and unseeable to itself," she thinks. Only upon interacting with a little boy, fatherless and eager to reach out, does Bea come to terms with the death of a husband and motherhood. Reminiscent stylistically of Gaitskill's most recent (and National Book Award-nominated) novel, "Veronica," the story skillfully mimics the act of remembering as it leaps from one past to another.
In "The Agonized Face," a journalist and single mother attends a writers' conference in order to write a humorous piece about a famous feminist author. Proud of her colorful life as a sex worker and, later, a short-term patient in a mental facility, the feminist argues that prostitution is a form of female empowerment. The journalist becomes offended at the middle-aged author's intellectualization of suffering as well as the too-appealing arrangement of her prose and yearns for something primal that she calls "the agonized face": "a face of sex and woman's pain . . . disgrace and violence, dark orgasm, rape, with feeling so strong that it obviates the one who feels it." But is it the feminist author or the journalist who is guilty of self-delusion? Gaitskill does not allow us any discernible sympathies, but we sense that the narrator has not worked through her own discomfort with the female experience, or what is potentially in store for her 10-year-old daughter, or that her hatred for the feminist author is really directed at her own grappling with writing, for "[w]ordless knowledge can be heavy and dark as the bottom of the ocean."
"Don't Cry" reveals its most valuable treasures as it progresses. "The Arms and Legs of the Lake" is probably the book's most ambitious work, where point of view is passed as a baton from one passenger to the next on a train bound for Syracuse, N.Y. The story is a grappling with the consequences of the Iraq war, a meditation on authority.
In "Today, I'm Yours," two old lovers run into each other on the street. One was the caretaker with a vivacious "social identity," while the narrator took solace in a "private identity." But no matter how acute the memories of young passion, the two must return to their present-day lives.
The collection opens with stories less compelling. "College Town, 1980" emerges as meandering as its heroine and "Folk Song" -- a deconstruction of the morning paper's grisly news -- recalls material tackled more powerfully in earlier work.
When distilled to its essence, Gaitskill's fiction is the literary equivalent of scratch marks from raking nails -- lingering, throbbing, trailing blood. "Sometimes, things that look really ugly on the outside look different when you get up close," the protagonist in "An Old Virgin" tells herself. To probe that observation from all angles is Gaitskill's creative mission. In "Don't Cry" she stares down human pain more directly than ever before.
Reyn is the author of the novel "What Happened to Anna K."