Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Now I Know About Jobs For Women and Girls: the 2nd Bibliographing Challenge

Alissa Nutting is another young author you should take time out to read. She has a macabre view of life, at least as shown through her fiction. I like that. I ENCOURAGE it. Or the plan is that I will dedicate my life to the promotion of such things, ENCOURAGING such things as the hilarious macabre in fiction, for one thing I will do / am doing. (Check out Lindsay Hunter, Amelia Gray, Faith Gardner and Jill Summers if you're looking for more of this kind of good stuff (and yes, I've provided links, but there's more by all four authors athwart the internet and elsewhere, which you should also read).)

Nutting is also the second of two writers I challenged Nicole of bibliographing to read. Nicole, never being one to back down from a reading challenge of any sort, did just that. (Check out Nicole's good thoughts on the subject here, in fact.)

So without further ado, and not much reiteration of my "take that, challenged" etc. refrain of last time, here are my thoughts on Nutting's debut short story collection, "Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls."

The first story in the collection is called "Dinner." It's about a motley assortment of individuals being boiled alive in a kettle. I was reminded of cartoons in which the protagonist is set into similar circumstances, misinterpreting the situation at first as some sort of spa-treatment and, in specific, Jacuzzi, complete with a ravenous antagonist chopping carrots nearby. The inhabitants of the kettle are a little more immediately aware of their plight than, say, Bugs Bunny.

We are given, probably not surprisingly considering the entire collection's title, an offering of this experience through the narrative lens of the only female in the bunch, a bunch of six altogether. There's a weird pragmatism and a fatalistic resignation to her description. She describes the others by the degrees of their attractiveness as men, human beings and, disconcertingly, as meals. "The men do not look so delicious."

"'There are worse ways to die,' I tell myself, 'than being boiled then sliced with a knife.' But it takes me awhile to think of one." This is the sort of black humor that the piece drives on. The story itself is probably too outlandish to take its subject matter as seriously as it might have, i.e. sincere rumination on the cruelty of man feels misplaced when at several points an evil-seeming chef enters their boiling chamber to remove one of their ranks for preparation and consumption. Couple that with the fact that the narrator immediately gets it in her head to dive unthinkingly into faux-love with the nearest, most innocuous seeming of the men who surround her (e.g. she says: "'I love you,' I say. It's coming from a good-pretend place. I just want to pack as much into these last few moments as I can."), and what you have is a really charged story, powered by a comic eye for the absurd and a willingness to poke fun at the human condition, wherever said condition rears its terse, too serious head.

And while generally humorous throughout, there are a great many stories here that do in fact hit dramatic high notes and demonstrate considerable range on the part of their author. One in particular is "She-Man" -- which just by its title starts off by sounding a little callous, yet ultimately proves to be anything but. Human callousness factors into the story heavily, though. Deceit and love are components as well. I've never seen "The Crying Game" but "She-Man" strikes me, based on what I've heard of "The Crying Game," as a more honest appraisal of its outcome (at least a very different appraisal).

The narrator, an unnamed woman, is a complex person, hitherto the time of the story she'd been a transgendered prostitute in the employ of a pimp named "Daddy V." Daddy is as huge an asshole as one would assume a man of that moniker would be. He makes life hard for the protagonist, reentering her life and attempting to blackmail her and extort money from her boyfriend, a professional bowler named Ginno. Ginno is unaware of the fact that she was once a man, which is where Daddy's blackmail enters the equation. But she's unwilling to manipulate Ginno, in every way a lovable loser, into giving her the lion's share of his recent payday after a big tournament win.

Or as she puts it:

He wants the money. All of it, the whole pot of Ginno's winnings. Daddy didn't change the channel until he saw Ginno receive an oversized $30,000 check.

The terrible part is that I know I could invent some story that makes it seem like I really need the money and Ginno would have no problem giving it to me. Somehow that means there is no way that I could ever bring myself to do it. He's the first and only decent man I've ever been with. And that makes me a decent woman.
So she attempts to pay him off herself, which goes not the way she probably wanted. The whole thing turns into a massive nightmare, and despite her best intentions, the narrator is undone by her deception. I'll say no more of that.

"Dancing Rat" is another of the stories that I found particularly enjoyable. It tells the tale of a woman who plays the part of a mouse named Sneezoid on a kid's dance show called Whisker-Bop! It's also about her relationship with her infertile boyfriend and, also, her relationship with her young, opinionated co-star Missy. The interplay between Missy and the narrator, in specific, is peculiar. Missy is as manipulative and bratty as privileged people get. The narrator won't be browbeaten by her, though, if she is at least in general kowtowing and servile to her demands.

Others I really enjoyed and highly recommend "Gardner," "Deliverywoman" and "Bandleader's Girlfriend."

Probably the only story that really missed its mark (and of course we're talking purely opinion here) was "Hellion." I thought it ambitious, and it had a really excellent concept: a hell-bound woman, or "Hellion," who becomes entangled in a romantic relationship with the devil. What could go wrong? Well, for my tastes the story was just sort of blah, nothing much happens. I guess I'm complaining about what I felt could have happened more than I am what did. I suppose that's an irritating position to take, but I've never promised I'm not irritating in a great many ways. Read it and see what you think.

Go, go now and read it!


  1. "Hellion" was a little weak for me too, but I blamed myself and the fact that I will forever associate "romantic relationship with the devil" with "South Park." Anyway...

    I love the points you make about Nutting's humor and the great sense of the absurd and macabre. It's something I really enjoy when done well and I think she finds just the right mix of darkness, humor, and optimism. And thanks for the other recommendations!

  2. Yeah, fair or unfair, the relationship with the devil definitely smacked of South Park, among other things that bothered me about "Hellion." I mean, I guess the genius of it is how tame and unexciting she made a plot that would be typically quite the opposite. But, ach, that's feigned praise, to be sure. She's allowed to write things that don't wow me at every turn . . . I suppose.