Reminiscent of the ugly-beautiful denizens of a Calvin Klein ad, the happy-sad and aggressively passive roughnecks in Mary Gaitskill's second collection of short stories embody the trendier modalities of modern romance. These masochist girls and sadist boys inhabit an ambivalent time, with feelings that invariably embody their sarcastic opposites. Gaitskill's touchy flock roams the urban landscape like heat-seeking misfits. A magazine article, casual meeting with a former lover or visit to the dentist's office are enough to send them hurtling down Memory Lane's grim, gray passage.
Gaitskill has a thing about female sex workers; several of her female characters have done time either as strippers or hookers and wear their resumis defiantly. Casually bisexual, they get off on the cutting edge of sexual politics, often to the dismay of fathers and boyfriends. In "Tiny, Smiling Daddy," a father seethes over his lesbian daughter's outing of their emotional problems in the pages of Self magazine. Words sting and bruise in "Because They Wanted To" (as slack a title as you could ask for). But all this verbal assault and battery makes for a gloomy Starbucks afternoon.
A transgressive writer in realist clothing, Gaitskill specializes in charged emotional scenes delivered with affectless precision. Her stories drift with a vague forward momentum, occasionally circling in upon themselves to exhale a memory. Since Gaitskill focuses on her characters' emotional and sexual lives, they come off as skeletal, attenuated and one-dimensional. They seek something they wouldn't recognize if it slapped them on the ass. "I told her I was sick of categories like butch bottom and femme top or vice versa," says 39-year-old Susan in "The Wrong Thing," the last and longest of these nine unsentimental journeys. "I said I was looking for something more genuine, although I didn't know yet what it was. She said she thought she probably was too." Ah, commitment.
Gaitskill's universe is not a laugh riot. It's a stark place reduced to sociosexual signifiers such as the occasional nipple ring or awkwardly wielded rubber cock. It's all au courant, and more than a little sad. "It was fun to say that I liked something refined and cruel," says Susan in "The Wrong Thing," "but under the fun was an impatient yank of boredom and under that was indignation and pain." Love hurts indeed.