Mary Gaitskill’s powerful new collection Don’t Cry continues 2009’s impressive run of great short fiction—with even more to come from Jay McInerney, Alice Munro, and Tolstoy.
The short story seems to be having, in its typically quiet way, a bit of a moment. Mary Gaitskill’s magnetic and unsettling Don’t Cry is only the latest indication. Three months into the year we’ve already been treated to acclaimed collections from Wells Tower, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Antonya Nelson, and Caitlin Macy. Add to this the three (count ‘em!) major new biographies of short-story masters: Cheever, Flannery, and Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme. There’s more to come, collections from literary biggies Jay McInerney, Kazuo Ishiguro, Aleksander Hemon and Alice Munro. And Harper Perennial has dubbed this the “Summer of the Short Story,” publishing four new collections from newcomers and relative unknowns, plus six fetchingly candy-colored classics from the likes of Tolstoy, Melville, Dostoyevsky, and Willa Cather.
Novels are easier to read, easier to recommend to friends, but a good short story is much, much harder to get out of your head.
It’s all a bit unaccountable. Aren’t story collections the charity cases of the book industry, notorious losers in terms of sales? Aren’t publishers, rattled by layoffs and forced consolidations, hedging their bets? I still remember, a decade ago, sending a few of my own published stories to an esteemed New York literary agent who advised me, scoldingly, to write a novel instead. “Collections do not sell,” he said. Apparently, they don’t (unless they’re written by Jhumpa Lahiri). But let’s not jinx it. The year’s new collections have been deservedly cheered by critics—and maybe this is my MFA talking (graduate writing programs are the short story’s hallowed ground), but I consider the story the higher art. Novels are easier to read, granted, easier to get lost in, easier to recommend to friends, but a good short story is much, much harder to get out of your head.
Take College Town, 1980, the haunting opener from Gaitskill’s satisfying new collection, her third after Bad Behavior and Because They Wanted To. Its considerable tension comes elision and compression—two of the form’s trademarks. What do we know about Dolores? She has “recently pulled huge chunks of her hair out.” She sits in a café in Ann Arbor feeling “swollen and hideous.” Her boyfriend recently broke up with her. The experience put her in a mental hospital, where, alarmingly, she asked her visiting father to beat her. Gaitskill delivers this information in short, evocative strokes over the space of four pages. The story goes on for 20—we meet her brother, his girlfriend, a few others—but much is left unexplained, and the plot is negligible. What Gaitskill is doing is holding up a young woman’s mental condition, a state of humiliation and cautious hope, and turning it around for the reader to see.
Try filling a novel with only that. I struggled with Gaitskill’s much-praised 2005 Veronica for just this reason. In it a woman recalls her years as a model in New York and Paris, and though there were many startling, hypnotic passages, to me it lacked the forward thrust I expect from a novel. Don’t Cry covers similar thematic territory—Gaitskill is fascinated by the way physical desire overtakes us, turns us into lumbering grotesques—but where Veronica felt drifty and inert, these stories make a poised and resonant impression.
Folk Song has no conventional plot at all, no characters to speak of. It starts as a summary of the news on a page of a city paper and spins into a lyrical meditation on sexual violence. Mirror Ball blends elements of fairy tale and allegory to a tale of a youthful one-night stand. Most collections sag somewhere, and The Arms and Legs of the Lake felt forced, its Iraq war veterans never as flesh and blood as I wanted them to be. Elsewhere, though, Gaitskill’s language is unexpected and fresh. She’s adept at startling descriptions: “His voice was like an old broken sack holding something live,” “Why did Allan’s friends…look at her with that vague leer…the expression that felt like a razor across her face?”
Don’t Cry frequently makes you uncomfortable, implicated somehow in the dark fantasies on display. It’s just one more reminder of the curious power of the finely wrought story. Happily, this is looking to be a year of them.
Taylor Antrim is the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.