January 2011

Lorian Long

fiction

Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting

Alissa Nutting’s Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls is a collection of eighteen short stories about women, animals, and objects existing in the underbelly. Perverted and beautiful, these stories deal with the shame of having bodies, and the ways in which we use them to corrupt each other. Characters live in impossible worlds made possible by everyday motion. Porn stars engage in anal sex on the moon; a woman goes to hell and falls in love with the devil; lobsters say goodbye to each other as they boil to death. The stories are boozy, unnerving, and funny. If Mary Gaitskill and Julio Cortázar together birthed a piglet, it could very well be this collection.

These jobs (“Model’s Assistant,” “Alcoholic,” “Zoo Keeper,” “Porn Star,” “Delivery Woman,” etc.) are roles, identities designed to cage women bloated with hope for lives unlived. Nutting’s women are trapped inside performances directed by others to harness the swelling of desire. But there is the dream-state; the untamed night where a sliver of light can escape through bedroom doors leading to a kind of grace found in secret shame. In "Gardener," a sexually unfulfilled housewife lusts after a ceramic garden gnome. Each night she watches her gnome fuck various female milkmaid gnomes: "How he watched me when he was with them, and how I watched him. At first I only watched; I felt like such a simple old woman. But after a while, I began to touch myself while they played, and I watched them watch me. Often I'd cry because their miniature world was just so beautiful. I felt like my love was a giant blanket, the top of a tent, and each night they all came inside of it to move around and make me warm." It’s a woman’s hungry fantasy fed by loneliness, rejection, and sexual insecurity, but there is potential in her dreaming, a calming want fulfilled by the illogical. These women are carried from the dark to the light as they are carried from shame to hope. The transference of energy from a ruined woman to a redeemed woman is the air drying an open wound, the formation of new skin. Nutting handles these transformations delicately, but also humorously, fingering our ears and then eating the wax. Our purest state is at our most humiliated.

What I find important about Nutting’s work is the abandonment of rules, of any boundaries placed on a text by genre. It isn’t about “magical realism” or “science fiction” so much as it is about bored bodies leaking in the afternoon. There is no need to cheeseball the bizarre when its effect is pure and familiar. Something happens every day but not everyone sees it; Nutting sees this Something and more. Her women are you, your mother, your sister, that same fat which can both soothe and destroy. The way a collection like this defeats categorization is in the refusal of a politic.

This is not to say that these stories are without statement. Nutting recognizes gender for the fucked game it is, and violation via structure, via holding, is what Nutting intends to untangle, knot by knot. A shaky foundation for bodies to slip through, these stories give way to fantastic chaos in which we lose sense of meaning, moments, memory, and performance. Without boundaries, the body is capable.

In my favorite story, "Ant Colony," bodies are used to house Earth's creatures. "When space on Earth became very limited, it was declared all people had to host another organism on or inside of their bodies." A beautiful actress becomes a trial study in the effort to store an ant colony inside bone. At first, she can't feel the ants moving inside her, but can sense their presence. "I can tell you this: I did love how invisible the ants were. They were creatures that seemed to consider themselves neither important nor beautiful.” Then, the insects begin to eat from within and transform the host body: “'I’m becoming them,’ I said one night when I heard my doctor swish in. ‘I’m becoming the ants.’” Rather than panic at the doctor’s orchestration of her transformation and his fashioning a stomach-portal through which her ants will travel through to his body, the actress finds serenity in the disorientating horror of bodies as hallways. “The rest of the world thinks that you’ve died,” the doctor says, and it is in this obliteration she comes out new. No name, no job, no face, only “Eat, Walk, Lift, Chomp.” The actress transcends her bodily existence through the limitations of instinct, functioning efficiently without the mess of gendered physicality. What is abandoned is the shell.

Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting
Starcherone Books
ISBN: 0984213325
188 Pages