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On Alissa Nutting's "Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls"

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...

When space on earth became very limited, it was declared all people had to host another organism on inside their bodies...

My boyfriend Ginno is a pro bowler. It is not as glamorous as it doesn't sound. I was on the streets for a long time so I took the first chance I got to settle down. Ginno doesn't know I'm really a man, but other than that we're completely honest with one another... 

These sentences are from the opening paragraphs of three of the stories in Alissa Nutting's debut collection, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, winner of the Sixth Annual Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction as chosen by Ben Marcus. At 8 tonight, she'll join Los Angeles-based poet Will Alexander as featured guests of Just Buffalo Literary Center's season opening BIG NIGHT! event at the Western New York Book Arts Center, 468 Washington St. (near Mohawk). 

Although we didn't spot Nutting's name on this past summer's New Yorker magazine "20 under 40" list of touted younger American writers, based on the strength of this collection, one can fully expect that a decade from now, she'll have eclipsed many, if not most of the publishing industry darlings on that list.

What makes Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls the uncanny, left field debut of this literary season?  Let's start with its conceptual premise: Nutting is no Barbara Ehrenreich (think Nickled and Dimed), but she seems expert at playing off the notion that we live in a culture where we are chiefly defined by how we are "employed" -- and that this circumstance is particularly unfair and invidious for women. In a trickle-down economy that is increasingly based on niche services, the absurdist nature of our working lives is a matter of common experience to which many readers can relate. 

To be sure, the 18 stories in this collection describe jobs for which descriptions cannot adequately be written (i.e., "Model's Assistant," "Porn Star," "Bandleader's Girlfriend," "Knife-Thrower") or perhaps these narratives are themselves the descriptions.  By the time you get to "Hellion" and "Alcoholic," you might well be convinced that the sense that the jobs are "unclean" is the biblical one.

Each of these surreal tales is a first-person account of a particular woman in extremis, a kind of existential peril that is as much a product of language and the imagination as it is circumstances in some possible world.  Some of the stories are set in a science-fiction evoking future where mother-daughter relations are still as distressingly contentious as in our more earthbound memoirs. Others move along at the pace of a stroll through a carnival sideshow, or a quick peak inside the waiting room of the world's most overbooked occupational therapist's practice.

While not necessarily fettered by the laws of the physical universe, they cohere in the psychological and emotional sense that fairy tales and fabulist fiction does. Never is the narrative development purely metonymic or governed formalist logic of the New Sentence.

All the stories bear a certain disposition toward the grotesque, but unlike many male authors who've visited the same psychic territory -- Dante, Poe, and Kafka spring readily to mind, though one might consider a postmodern like Mark Leyner as well -- Nutting's greatest talent as a narrative artist appears not to be in making the familiar seem grotesque, but rather in so fully and empathically incorporating the somatic details of the grotesque as to make them seem comfortingly familiar, almost matter-of-fact.

"I expected the rules of prison," she writes in "Hellion," a story which has her husband-killing narrator progressively smitten by the courtship of her subterranean host. "But that is lesson #1. Hell is not the same as prison...

Later, she accepts his compliment: "You're becoming more comfortable with entrails," the devil commented.  I liked the way he took notice of my growth...   When they finally consummate their unholy attraction, the devil seeks to reassure her: "This part is a little normal," he said.  But it wasn't true....Hell is different from my old life, but not so different as all that.  Not so different that I couldn't get hurt, or hurt him.  He let me look on just a moment more, then the flame was blown out by a wind that came from nowhere."

Nutting, a rural Michigan native, who received her undergraduate degree from the University of Florida and an MFA degree from the University of Alabama (where she served as editor for the Black Warrior Review) is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she has received Cobain and Schaeffer Fellowships in Fiction. She is fiction editor of the literary journal Witness and managing editor of Fairy Tale Review.

Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls is available from Buffalo-based Starcherone Books, or from your local independent bookseller.

--R.D. Pohl 

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