I once read a critic who described Gaitskill’s fiction as “luminous.” I guess. If by luminous, you incorrectly mean sheds light, then I’m willing to agree. But there’s nothing lit up or light about Gaitskill’s fiction. In fact, this is why we turn to it, for the tunnels it provides into darker territory than that explored by most contemporary fiction.
In this new collection of stories, Gaitskill’s first book after her 2006 novel Veronica was nominated for the National Book Award, the author explores the lives of the disaffected and the damaged with a pickax. In the opener, “College Town, 1980,” the 29-year-old Dolores lives with her younger brother, his girlfriend and another boarder. One gets the feeling no one else would have her. Dolores has been institutionalized in the past, and she’s begun tearing out her hair in huge clumps. She’s off a bad breakup with her boyfriend, who told her, “There’s no love in you because there’s no sex in you. Sex is light and fertility and life and communication! You only have this…pornography and submission and blackness and death!” In “An Old Virgin,” Laura meanders through her apartment incanting, “Ugly cunt, ugly cunt,” over and again and can’t find the strength or stability to stop when she takes in her dying father. And in the title story, two friends travel to Ethiopia, one accompanying the other on a trip to adopt a child. The political unrest in the town notably provides a backdrop for the friends’ story.
What impresses most about Gaitskill’s fiction is its momentum. “College Town, 1980,” begins simply and mundanely enough. But as Gaitskill slowly and unrepentantly peels back the layers in her characters, the drama emerges from the women’s inner lives. It’s a neat trick that leaves us floored almost every time.
Gaitskill appears on Writers on the Record Thursday 26.