The best story in Don’t Cry, Mary Gaitskill’s latest short story collection, is the title story. Had it appeared first rather than last, her readers might have been eager for the stories that followed.
It’s hard not to be depressed by “College Town, 1980,” but at least it evokes a specific place and a moment in time. “Folk Song” reads like a precocious goth teen’s experiment in stream-of-consciousness writing: intense, horrifying, and occasionally revealing, but mostly just full of dark, unwholesome sexual imagery. “Mirror Ball” is a striking story, and a strikingly uncomfortable read for any woman who’s ever regretted sleeping with a man on the first date, but it’s unclear what it accomplishes beyond instilling in young lovers everywhere a keen sense of sexual unease.
Although it contains vivid physical descriptions, the point of “Today I’m Yours,” which exhaustingly catalogues the dysfunction and perversity of an untenable love affair, is again elusive. You don’t have to be the kind of girl who likes her love stories sugary to find yourself wishing for something else, anything else, amidst all the sweat, genitals, loneliness, and pain. In Ms. Gaitskill’s world, sex is serious business and human suffering its inescapable result.
Ms. Gaitskill is skilled at depicting lovers who are, like Dido and Aeneas before them, slaves of squalid craving. But her comfort with the subject matter and her aptitude for physical description are not enough to make this a compelling collection. Many wonderful short stories are not tethered to a traditional narrative structure. It’s not in itself a flaw that Ms. Gaitskill’s stories lack a beginning, middle, and end, a discernible narrative arc, or a single memorable character or nonsexual event. The problem is that they also lack a point. They have no emotional center, and they fail to engage the reader deeply enough to make a lasting impression.
It’s not quite accurate to describe Don’t Cry as a collection of short stories. It’s more a jumble of encounters, moments, and inner monologues. Reading Don’t Cry is like watching a sexy lowbrow thriller: later that night, you might suddenly recall a breast, a moan, a sigh, a spurt of blood, or the queasy crunch of bone, but you surely won’t remember a fresh insight, an original line of dialogue, or a well-drawn character.
Capturing instances of sex, violence, death, grief, and run-of-the-mill human angst is Ms. Gaitskill’s forte. Not witty, wise, funny, or fun to read, Don’t Cry leaves the reader feeling much like one of Ms. Gaitskill’s young female victim-protagonists: violated, drained, disgusted, and full of self-loathing. If the title is a joke—just try not to cry while reading these stories!—it’s the only line of this book that made me smile.