by Peter Grandbois
Rarely does a reader experience an imagination pulsing with the vibrancy of Alissa Nutting’s Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. Her bizarre stories inhabit the slipstream between literary fiction and science fiction, between fantasy and the fairy tale, all the while creating worlds where anything seems possible: “The medical adviser/cameraman tranquilizes Dick and straps him into a cocoon on the wall. It looks as though some giant spider caught him and hung him there. I keep watching the cargo door for a human-sized space arachnid to enter and devour him whole.” This passage is drawn from a story about a reality TV show called “Eat IT” where the winner gets to have anal sex on the moon with a porn star.
As that scenario might suggest, Nutting’s social satire bites as hard as George Saunders but with the frighteningly fabulist incisors of Julio Cortázar. Take the opening story “Dinner,” in which the narrator and several other characters sitting in a stewpot wait to be eaten by diners off screen. As the narrator boils, she tells herself, “You can bear anything . . . if you know you’re not alone.” That desire to connect with others propels each of the eighteen stories in this collection containing stories ranging in length from the two-page “Zookeeper”—where a zookeeper answers, “She was soft” when asked why she steals the zoo’s prize panda—to the twenty-six-page “Bandleader’s Girlfriend.”
More often than not, the need to connect leads to dissolution of the self, as is the case with the under-confident narrator of “Model’s Assistant,” caught in the gravitational pull of her beautiful boss: “I am feeling more visible by the second.” The desire to love another, to be part of something bigger, so often makes us feel small. Nutting’s dark catalog of desire extends beyond the human world, as in the story “Ant Colony,” where space on a future earth is so limited “it was declared all people had to host another organism on or inside of their bodies.” The actress narrator has holes drilled in her bones to house colonies of ants and soon finds herself lost in their united consciousness: “When my eyes were closed I could see various dark caves and swarming ant-limbs, and these images gradually started to feel preferential to anything I might view of the outer world.” As is so often the case in Nutting’s dementedly sublime fictions, what begins as an act of love, a joining with another, ends in desire that cannot be satisfied: “When I try to think, all I can feel is the sugary fluid, and a rage that comes when after our feedings I find myself hungry.”
Despite its dark tone, Nutting’s collection is anything but depressing, and readers may find themselves laughing out loud often at passages such as, “I am boiling inside a kettle with five other people. Our limbs are bound and our intestines and mouths are stuffed with herbs and garlic, but we can still speak. We smell great despite the pain. The guy next to me resembles Elvis because of his fluffy, vaguely-pubic black hairdo. It may be the humidity.” Morbid situations, desperate desires, and seismic humor make for a difficult recipe, but Nutting pulls it off with the panache of a master chef.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011