Exploring the art of prose


Ugly Love: Character as Plot in Mary Gaitskill’s DON’T CRY


By Melissa Benton Barker •

The stories in Mary Gaitskill’s collection Don’t Cry are like tiny mirrors held close, all the pores and blemishes of her characters offered up for the readers’ inspection. Published in 2009, the collection scrupulously examines feminine identity during the pre-Trump, postfeminist era of the late twentieth century, each story imbued with a relentless honesty, a refusal to shy away from the complications and contradictions of character. Gaitskill doesn’t take it easy on the women she portrays. She unsparingly plumbs psychological depths, rejecting the traditional notion of plot, instead inviting the reader to crawl inside her central characters’ interior world. Here, the quotidian—attending a conference, moving through an airport during a layover—transpires beneath layers of stream-of-conscious thought and memory so that the character’s interior experience becomes more present than the moment of action. Rather, the character’s interior experience is the action. The character becomes the plot. 

“The Agonized Face” is a philosophical story, demanding that the reader explore fundamental questions about the intersection of the postfeminist sexual and intellectual experience while remaining rooted to the protagonist’s earthy, embodied experience. The unnamed first-person narrator, a middle-aged writer, attends a conference on a freelance assignment to interview a celebrity-feminist author. Upon listening to her interview subject give a reading, the narrator notes:

We were all feeling stirred, like we were really dealing with something here, something that had just been illustrated for us by a magical, elfish hand. We felt like we were being touched in a personal place, a little like our mother would touch us—a touch that was emotionally erotic. Like a mother [the feminist writer] seemed potent, yet there was something of the daughter there, too, the innocent girl who has been badly teased by an importune boy, and who comes to you, her upturned face looking at you with puzzlement.

The narrator’s observations are bound by the unique perspective of her psychology. This passage is emblematic of the story as, with minimal action, the “plot” unfolds within the narrator’s mind, the central question being her fascination with the idea of the “agonized face,” an image that, in her private lexicon, stands for the unspeakable primitive impulses underlying contemporary gender identity, sexuality, and emotional intimacy. It is the gradual revelation of the meaning of the “agonized face” that drives the narrative forward, the idea gaining focus and clarity as the narrator moves through the events of her day, like a photograph appearing underwater in a black room. 

The actual events that take place within the story’s timeline are minimal. A writer attends a conference and its concomitant events: a lecture, an after-party, readings. There is minimal dialogue. But the character’s interiority roils with kaleidoscopic layers of memory, association, and meaning, plunging the reader into the midst of stark questions about what it means to live within a gendered, politicized body, and how one might negotiate this embodied, sexualized experience with the life of the mind. Gaitskill doesn’t offer any easy answers. Instead she demands that the reader grapple with these questions beside the main character. 

Likewise, there is minimal action in the present timeline of “A Little Boy.” An exploration of family, loss, and regret written in close third-person, the narrative follows an elderly woman as she moves through the Detroit airport, strikes up a conversation at the gate with a mother and child while she waits for her plane, boards her plane, and takes off for home. Again, Gaitskill infuses banal, quotidian detail with meaning and specificity as she deeply inhabits Mrs. Bea Davis, the main character. In the following passage, Bea moves through the airport:

At the end of the corridor was an escalator with people pouring onto it from all directions. Bea mounted it and stood still, while on her left people rushed facelessly past her. Going up, she felt as if she were falling, but falling where?

Many readers have used an escalator in an airport. Bea’s unique experience on the escalator is her feeling of falling as she moves up. Again, Gaitskill gives meaning to this action by wrapping it in the specific psychology of her character. The narrative weaves mundane detail with the associations of Bea’s internal world, where she is struggling to cope with the complicated grief she suffers following the death of her emotionally wounded and wounding ex-husband, as well as the havoc he wrought on her life and on the lives of her daughters. Later, on the airplane, ordinary experience again takes on the weight of Bea’s grief and regret:

And still she couldn’t cry. A stewardess came down the aisle, headphones draped gracefully over her arm. It had been two years and she had not cried for him once. The stewardess smiled and offered her draped arm. Bea shook her head and turned away, into the darkness. I am old and worthless, and I am going home to shadows on the wall.

Most of Gaitskill’s characters are people the reader might imagine they’ve run into before (the would-be writer, the isolated elderly woman). Sometimes these characters lean towards the grotesque, as in the passage that opens the collection’s first story, “College Town, 1980,” where physical description, so frequently vulnerable to cliche, is used artfully to reveal internal experience:

Dolores did not look good in a scarf. Her face was fleshy, her nose had a bulby tip, and her forehead was low. Her skin was coarse and heavy for a woman under thirty, and the tension in her face was such that a quick glance gave the impression that she was grinding her teeth, although she was not.

It would be easy to satirize these characters, to mock or flatten them in their ordinary existence. But the gaze here, for all that it reveals, remains sympathetic in its regard for each character’s humanity. Even Bea’s late ex-husband, ostensibly the villain of “The Little Boy,” is depicted as painfully human, once a helpless child. One of Bea’s daughters describes her effort to connect with her father spiritually:

She connected with his heart. In his heart she saw a small boy, maybe five or six years old, alone in a garden…surrounded by a dense thicket of thorns, so that the boy could not get out and no one else could get in.

Just as a daughter imagines her wounded and wounding father as vulnerable and whole, Gaitskill brings her characters to life without scorn, even loved unconditionally in the fullness of their all-too-often ugly, struggling humanity. Perhaps that is what writing close to character is about—holding up the mirror, recognizing shared humanity, a kind of unsparing, all-seeing, unconditional love. 


MELISSA BENTON BARKER’s writing appears in LammergeierHeavy Feather ReviewNew Flash Fiction ReviewQueen Mob’s Teahouse, and elsewhere. She has received Best of the Net and Pushcart nominations. She lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she is currently completing her first collection of short fiction.