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Fiction's pitiless eye exposes broken lives

FICTION gives readers access to the private lives of characters who don't know they're being watched, people who seem real - as real as the reader, if their creator is sufficiently skilled - and whose unspoken thoughts and feelings are plundered for whatever enlightenment or diversion they might offer.

No writer understands and gratifies the voyeurism inherent in reading fiction better than Mary Gaitskill. "Don't Cry," her third collection of stories, confirms what made "Bad Behavior" and "Because They Wanted To" such idiosyncratic and memorable books. She has a perturbing ability to generate what seems as much a vivisection as a narrative, slicing through her characters to expose interior lives that are more often "broken or incomplete" than in any way admirable.

The people in Gaitskill's stories often behave unconventionally and impulsively; they may seem to have an agency outside their author's control, doing what not even she could expect, but they never escape her pitiless eye and meticulous hand.

The perturbing aspect of Gaitskill's talent proceeds from its implicating the reader in what feels like a violation of her characters. Dolores, in "College Town, 1980," hides her bald head under a scarf. She doesn't want anyone to know she's pulled out her hair, not any more than she wants witnesses to other symptoms of her mental illness, or to the mean-spirited observations and petty concerns that pass for her inner life.

Perhaps what she would most want to guard is her arrival at what is undoubtedly a delusional sense of healing, a moment of precarious and fragile optimism. But Dolores has no rights. In moments when another writer, a more polite or a less relentless writer, might pull back and allow her character privacy, Gaitskill accelerates into a close-up, making us squirm with the knowledge of our unappeasable appetite for the secrets and misfortunes of others.

"How loathsome to turn a sadistic murder into entertainment - and yet how hard not to read about it," the narrator of "Folk Song" thinks as she reads the newspaper, articulating the reader's discomfort. "What dark comedy to realize that you are scanning for descriptions of torture even as you disapprove." Because it isn't only her characters' psyches that are under assault. Gaitskill mortifies plenty of flesh as well.

A man dying of cancer has tubes stuffed "down his nose to feed him," an act of preservation made invasive and painful. A grandfather fills a bag with a litter of kittens and is caught "bashing them against the side of the house." A young man's mother comes home from the hospital with a "new breast made out of stomach" and "tubes that functioned as drains, collecting the pus in detachable plastic bulbs."

In their dreams as well as in reality Gaitskill's characters, especially the women, are humiliated, hurt, enraged. One has a nightmare that "men rape and murder women over and over again and they cannot be stopped." Another is addled enough to talk aloud to herself, endlessly repeating a misogynistic epithet too profane to be printed here. She finds it hard to break what she calls a "bad habit" because what she feels is, she believes, true: "Women are ugly." Discarded by a lover, an "elfin girl" vacillates "between anger and contempt and terrible longing." Bashing. Slashing. Screaming. Stabbing. Gaitskill writes with visceral power, with what sometimes feels like an exultantly destructive energy, and what she writes falls far outside the domestic realism readers have come to expect from female writers.

Her prose can be delicate and fanciful, rendering women seated at a bus stop as cats "pulled tidily into themselves, cross-legged and holding their handbags as if they were about to lick their paws," but such descriptions are offered almost as moments of respite from what is more often "raw and hard," the voice of one sister "thrust" at the other "like a stick."

What happens in chick lit - shopping, gossip, romance - might appear in a Gaitskill story, but in a surprising, often cruel, variant. A pair of aunts don't natter together; they "go on purpose to places where ugly poor people would be" so they can amuse each other by making cutting remarks about them.

The fairytale-like "Mirror Ball" is a romance, Gaitskill-style. A young man goes home with a girl he picks up in a bar. Even before they have intercourse he feels he would like to "throw her away," and when he leaves her he takes what she has "recklessly unfurled" - "her soul." Without it, the girl is "bereft and heartsick," but it has no value for her one-night stand.

He drops it where he discards the souls of other women he's bedded, on the floor of his apartment. Like "The Agonized Face," which attempts to define a female (as opposed to male) truth, an essence usually denied for its "disgrace and violence, dark orgasm, rape, with feeling so strong that it obviates the one who feels it," "Mirror Ball" relies on an intellectual conceit that cannot ultimately save the story from its length or disorganization. But few of Gaitskill's stories are plotted in the conventional sense. They don't require suspense building toward a crisis and denouement, because they hold our attention with the promise of revealing what is ordinarily hidden from view.

Hold it fiercely. Glimpses of what characters would forbid us to see are seductive, immediately involving. They insist we keep looking, just as we would at a car wreck; keep eavesdropping, as we would on a couple fighting next door; keep reading, as we would a diary left open by accident. What might the author give us in the next sentence, the next paragraph? Because her subject is intimacy, often but not necessarily sexual, because she has a gift for inventing details that feel authentic, as if excised from an unwitting, living victim, Mary Gaitskill commands her readers' attention as few fiction writers can.


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