I love a book with a good title. I love good titles in general. When I’m bored, I sit around writing titles, placing each one in its own Word file so when I feel like writing but want to work on something new, I just need to look at all those empty, waiting documents, pick the one with the title that intrigues me the most, and start writing. Ever since I first heard of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting (Starcherone Books), I have been charmed by the title and I finally had the chance to really sit down with the book. I ended up reading it one sitting because it was one of those books you literally cannot put down. The stories in this collection are smart and imaginative and strange and fearless in their execution. It is readily evident why this book won the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction. A great deal of care and handling went into these stories.
In Contemporary American Novelists of the Absurd, Charles Harris writes, “The absurdist vision may be defined as the belief that we are trapped in a meaningless universe and that neither God nor man, theology nor philosophy, can make sense of the human condition.” As I’ve read about Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls over the past couple months, I’ve often seen references to the writing as absurdist fiction. I would disagree. While many of the stories have a surreal, almost absurd quality to them, the stories by no means imply that they are a response to a belief that we are trapped in a meaningless universe because so many of the characters in these stories are clinging to the hope that there is, indeed, some meaning in the universe. In each of these stories, Nutting is, above all making beautiful sense of the human condition.
What I really appreciated is how several of the stories toyed with the implausible but did so in, well, very plausible ways. “Deliverywoman,” for example, takes place in the (somewhat near) future. The protagonist, who goes by CargoBabe when she’s chatting online with her Internet boyfriend Brady, is an intergalactic deliverywoman. She has made plans to meet Brady, finally, after a long correspondence but first, she buys her mother, Debbie “The Destroyer” Harlow, a criminal who has been cryogenically frozen, at the government’s penal system auction. CargoBabe brings her mother home and debates whether or not she should unfreeze her mother, at Brady’s suggestion, and when she finally does, her reunion with her mother, suffice it to say, does not go as planned. The story is crazy, and yet everything makes sense. The setting is different, and seems wildly implausible, but the heart of this story is about love and loneliness and family and betrayal, themes with which we are all familiar. The balance between the unfamiliar and impossible with the familiar is what makes Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls such a great book.
In each story about an unclean job for women or girls, I also felt like Nutting was creating narratives around the insecurities women live with—insecurities about beauty, bodies, responsibilities, sexuality. In “Model’s Assistant,” a woman is engaged in a somewhat masochistic friendship with a Swedish supermodel named Garla, clinging desperately to the benefits of walking in the wake of a beautiful person. “Porn Star” is the story of a woman who is going to have anal sex on the moon with a reality show contestant. The story ends, “I feel fine but also very strange, looking at the world and its distance. I feel its weight in my stomach like a pregnancy, like an old meal. When I want to, I cover up the Earth and its oceans with my hand, and then even with the cameras it seems like no one can see me.” Even amidst an absurd scenario, Nutting creates these quiet, vulnerable moments that are hard to forget.
Nutting also captures different voices very well. In “Teenager,” a sixteen year old getting an abortion and the complex web of relationships, unique to teenagers, between the narrator, her boyfriend, her best friend and her best friend boyfriends. The narrator is at once worldly and naif, an adult, and a child and the way the story balances these different roles is one of the most interesting tensions throughout the story. “Dancing Rat,” introduces a narrator who plays a mouse on a children’s musical dance program She and her boyfriend are busy having conception free sex and the narrator is being bossed around by Missy, one of the child actors on the show. “Like many lesser mammals, Missy can detect fear. She reminds me a lot of Pearl in The Scarlet Letter, asking questions that insist she already know more than she should.” Again, there’s a real balance in how Nutting writes these characters—the precocious child, the woman doesn’t know if she’s infertile or how she feels about that infertility and what two such people could possibly be to each other.
When I read, I look to books and their writers to teach me about what I can accomplish in my own writing. In reading Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, I had a great opportunity to think about stretching my imagination more, about taking more risks and trusting myself to take those risks. That’s truly what Nutting is doing with this collection of remarkable, fierce stories, taking big but calculated risks, trusting her audience and trusting her own writing. You should definitely check this book out. It will take you places and teach you things.