This Review was written by Peter Fontaine and was featured in The Southeast Review Vol. 29.2.
Alissa Nutting. Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. Starcherone Books, 2010. $18.00.
Alissa Nutting’s debut collection of short fiction, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, looks and feels very much like a concept book. There is no title story to be found within. Instead, the title indicates what these collected stories have in common, why they have all been brought together in one volume. The table of contents is headed as “Table of Jobs.” Even though many of the stories found here have enjoyed earlier publication in journals such as Tin House, Denver Quarterly, and The Southeast Review, they appear here re-titled to illustrate the types of “jobs” we are meant to encounter as we read. Some of the eighteen story titles we recognize instantly as jobs, such as “Deliverywoman,” and a few more are familiar enough to claim the “unclean” found in the title, like “Porn Star.” There are even titles that are not normally considered jobs but with a little stretching it’s easy to see how they might be, such as “Bandleader’s Girlfriend,” but at the end we are left with stories that don’t appear as if they are jobs at all, like “Teenager,” until we ultimately descend into the absurd with simply “Dinner.”
Nutting starts us with “Dinner,” and it has the difficult task of all first stories in a collection of enticing us while setting our expectations for the rest that follow. In this way, “Dinner” succeeds by immersing us both wholly and confidently in a fabulist world where the narrator and five other people are themselves found immersed in a boiling kettle. The narrator tells us that even though they are stuffed and dressed like culinary fowl, they can still speak, and while they currently feel great pain they also “smell great.” One by one, the cooks come to collect the people in the kettle for their final roasting, and the woman who narrates the story both observes the reactions of her fellows while engaging in conversation with them. There is no history here for these characters or this world, even though the narrator tells us one of their number looks like Elvis. And there’s no future either, other than to be collected for the chopping block. The story intently focuses on the present moment through the feelings of these characters. An old man in the pot spouts names randomly that both the narrator and another man assume as their own. In this same instance, they declare their love for one another, because what else is the time they have left good for? The metaphor is powerful in regards to the women we meet in the following stories, each one of them caught in a situation with others of which little to no sense can be made, and some kind of connection or yearning is pursued as some inevitable end looms over them all.
To counterpoint “Dinner,” the following story, “Model’s Assistant” is entirely realistic and familiar as short stories go, however the narrator’s voice and situation share similarities with those of “Dinner.” Although there are plenty of television shows to give light to the truth of Garla’s character and behavior as satirized here, there is still the suggestion of the fantastic in the narration. The narrator explains that Garla lives and functions solely in “model land,” and that wherever Garla goes, “it’s Garla’s party.” Thus by association with this model, the narrator’s whole life begins to change, transform. She feels like she is becoming somebody because she knows Garla and Garla is somebody. However, this change is threatened when the narrator demands recognition from Garla herself, a ridiculous proposition that leads to both humorous and briefly poignant consequences.
Like any good concept book, this collection is no assemblage of greatest hits, but a crafted sequence of entries that follow a pattern giving shape to the whole, at the same time allowing individual works to shine through on their own. Every story is told by a first-person woman (or girl) narrator. The often anonymous narrator always relates her particular tension or unease with her current situation. And the situation is always current as each story is told primarily in present tense. A few stories like “Bandleader’s Girlfriend” and “Deliverywoman” are long enough to allow for the presence of backstory, but most hit the ground running and we catch up as we go along, much like the narrators themselves.
The stories alternate smoothly between quirky fabulism and gritty realism. In “Deliverywoman,” we meet a woman of the future, who delivers intergalactic cargo in her spaceship and tries to get her mother out of cryogenic prison, while in the following story, “Corpse Smoker,” the narrator’s friend is a mortician who sometimes smokes the hair of the dead. As the stories shift between these two styles, they effortlessly find humor and sadness in their subjects. In “Hellion,” the irrepressible absurdity of the narrator growing large breasts upon her arrival in hell and helping the devil develop a roller coaster called SKULLKRUSH is related hand in hand with moments like one that ends the story when the narrator reflects, post-coitus with the devil, that life in hell is different, “but not as different as all that.” The sadness is always just as irrepressible as the comedy. Likewise, the story “Teenager” balances the sobering topic of a sixteen-year-old contemplating an abortion with the shocking, blackly comic revelation that her teenage friends are filming their sexual exploits for “educational” value.
As a concept story collection, Nutting’s book is unique and refreshing. She ties the varied stories together by the carefully crafted and executed voices of her women (and girl) narrators. The balance between playful fantasy and perturbing realism creates a playground for Nutting to explore the emotional extremes of her characters while presenting an exemplary display of her technique, which is considerable. Like the success of any work labeled “concept,” Nutting’s collection as a whole ultimately performs beyond the idea that organizes her stories, and each entry has wonders of its own worth beholding.
Alissa Nutting is the author of the novels Made for Love, a New York Times editor's choice selection, and Tampa, the film version of which is in development at HBO, as well as the story collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, an expanded/revised version of which is being rereleased in Summer 2018 as part of Ecco's "Art of the Story" series. A nonfiction book of her comedic essays is forthcoming from Ecco in 2019. Her fiction and essays have appeared in publications such as Tin House, BOMB, Elle, Real Simple, Buzzfeed, and many others. She is currently at work on two television projects--one animated in development with Cartoon Network, the other based on her recent novel and being co-written with Dean Bakopoulos for Paramount Studios. She is an assistant professor of English and writer-in-residence at Grinnell College.