Charting the Changes in Mary Gaitskill’s New Characters

It’s been 21 years since her first short-story collection, Bad Behavior, debuted, but Mary Gaitskill proves with her brand-new book of stories, Don’t Cry, that she remains the queen of the brutal urban misadventure. Her characters, however, show signs of aging, and her purview has grown to encompass the international realm. We’ve selected five characters from the new book’s ten stories and broken down what, exactly, is new — and disturbingly familiar — about them.

“College Town, 1980”
Main malfunction: Dolores describes herself as “an overweight twenty-nine-year-old in stretch pants … mentally ill, and unable to have orgasms.” She is chronically depressed and struggling both to be a nice person and to find herself in a world of cruel judgment.
Evidence of maturity: Dolores spends the story reflecting on her past sexual misadventures — rather than engaging in them — and comes to a realization that being productive and doing her history papers could have an even more enlightening effect on her than masturbating.
Pure Gaitskill: “When she was in public, she was sometimes torn between the fear that the scarf had slipped and part of her head was showing and the urge to take it off and see what people did.”

“A Dream of Men”
Main malfunction: Laura is haunted by the death of her father, which is inspiring violent dreams of men murderously attacking each other.
Evident maturity: A friendship with a colleague who teaches her that there are ways of loving without giving birth to children. This leads her to admit that “I was a rebellious girl and I went in a stupid direction.”
Pure Gaitskill: Laura walks around for much of the story muttering “Ugly cunt, ugly cunt,” under her breath, for no obvious reason.

“Agonized Face”
Main malfunction: A journalist with unfulfilled ambitions obsesses over the success of a disingenuous feminist writer.
Evident maturity: The journalist frets over the impending sexual maturation of her 10-year-old daughter, whom she won’t allow to bleach her hair like Gwen Stefani.
Pure Gaitskill: The obsession over the feminist writer.

“The Little Boy”
Main malfunction: Mrs. Bea Davis fearfully wonders whether she ever loved her late, adulterous husband.
Evident maturity: She’s an elderly mother of two middle-aged daughters whom she’s discovering she does not know very well.
Pure Gaitskill: Her relationship with the adulterous husband reflects a life of not-so-subtle abuses.

“Don’t Cry”
Main malfunction: Janice mourns her recently dead husband, who visits her in both her waking and dreaming hours.
Evident maturity: Not only is she accompanying her friend to Ethiopia to adopt a baby, but the experience awakens in her a realization that hers are “not the worst of sorrows.”
Pure Gaitskill: She reveals that she was unfaithful to her husband with someone she disliked. He was “rude in class, so arrogant that it made him stupid … I wanted sex and I wanted it to hurt.”

Charting the Changes in Mary Gaitskill’s New Characters