Feminism & Dark Satire: On Alissa Nutting’s ‘Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls’

Nutting addresses mental health, sexualization, the female body, and abuse, but the dark satire is overpowering and out of place.

Alissa Nutting
Short Stories | 192 Pages | 5.31” x 8” | Reviewed: Ebook
9780062699855 | First Edition | $16.99
Ecco | New York City | BUY HERE

Image: Ecco.

Alissa Nutting’s short story collection, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, is not for the fainthearted. It not only dove into and illuminated the dark crevices of women’s experiences in myriad roles and situations, but it also unsettled me to the point that I would no longer read it too late at night. The vivid and explicit imagery felt too real in the dark. Nutting’s unusual writing style and the approach to womanhood makes it memorable, but it’s only after sitting down for a while and meditating on the collection that the more feminist and critical themes come to light. There is probably no better word to describe this collection than bizarre. It takes some excavating to go beyond the immediate shock-value of these stories, but when you get there, you see that Nutting missed some things along the way, creating characters that felt rather “safe” and not as unconventional or groundbreaking as they initially seemed.

Each of the stories in Unclean Jobs is told in first-person by a female protagonist, sometimes named, sometimes not. These protagonists find themselves in emotionally, mentally, and physically difficult situations, from being boiled alive in a kettle in the opening story “Dinner” to buying their cryogenically frozen mother in “Deliverywoman.” After a certain point, it felt like I was actually reading about one protagonist in different incarnations. Nutting created a sense of unity that was one of the collection’s strengths, making it easy to build on the sensation of discomfort that kept slowly accumulating. She also carried some images from story to story; the two most prominent ones I picked up on were grandmothers and pills. This further solidified the idea that I was watching a corrupted cycle unfold before my eyes, a cycle that was impossible to put an end to.

Nutting is unparalleled when it comes to opening sentences in her stories. Usually shocking the reader with their straightforwardness — “Porn Star” is the undisputed winner in this category — they also hit the reader right away with the stories’ premises. “Ant Colony” was my favorite for this reason, not just overall but also for the way it begins:

“When space on earth became limited, it was declared all people had to host a complex organism on or inside their bodies. Many people chose something noninvasive, such as barnacles or a vole in a wig.”

At the same time, a handful of the stories suffered from having a good hook that was not fleshed out. Stories like “Corpse Smoker,” which was enticing with its premise of seeing a person’s memories if you smoke his or her hair, felt more like a concept to me that did not have any tangible stakes to it. Because of this lack of stakes, it was also difficult, for the most part, to feel completely immersed in the stories — “Ant Colony” being the sole exception. I did not feel compelled to dwell on most of the stories after I finished them, moving on to the next one in a kind of mechanical fashion and subconscious curiosity to know what comes after.

These juxtapositions that Nutting gives the reader were a double-edged sword that both attracted and repelled me. It all depended on how Nutting used these images and what kind of reaction she wanted to extract. At times, the imagery was elaborate and aided in the story’s concept, like in “Hellion.” The speaker, who ends up in Hell, describes how

“[o]ur currency is little coins made of hair and liver that we have to spend before they rot. We get a weekly allowance, and it’s actually hard to spend it all.”

In other instances, imagery was used for pure shock value that sometimes felt unnecessary, like for the protagonist of “Cat Owner,” who voices her concern that the mashed sweet potatoes

“[l]ook like the diarrhea of a clown.”

It got difficult to gauge just what it is that Nutting was going for, especially since she clearly has her own unique style and writer’s vision. But it was hard not to look at these stories through workshop glasses and wonder how they could be adjusted, to downplay what it felt like there was too much of (shocking and unsettling imagery) and emphasize what was lacking (characterization and complexity that would not only have made the female characters feel more real but would have also made them easier to empathize with). As a result, this took away from the feminist themes that were raised and explored in the collection, from moments like the calm speech of the protagonist in “Bandleader’s Girlfriend,” who tells her sister:

“We’ve been over this. My name is Aura Solara Sorcerella. It’s official; I have stationery. Our bathrooms are filled with ASS embroidered towels. You used them to wipe the perspiration from your forehead the last and only time you visited our tree house. Please don’t backpedal. You’ve chosen to remain in my journey, thus my life.”

Nutting occasionally tiptoed the line between the stereotypical and ridiculous and the heartfelt and critical. The above passage was one such example that fell between these two sides while balancing them within itself. I often did not know how to respond, or if there were a particular way in which I should respond, to the characters and situations on the page before me. Nutting addresses difficult topics such as mental health, the sexualization of the female body, and abuse, but at times the dark satire and humor felt overpowering and out of place, making me wish I could approach the characters better.

Maybe this is the strength of the collection that I was unable to see or simply could not fully appreciate. In this regard, Unclean Jobs is comparable to Black Mirror: it’s not for everyone. It certainly ended up not being for me. While I do enjoy being shocked or feeling uncomfortable, I prefer having some sort of purpose behind such reactions, an urge to sit down and discuss the underlying significance of what I read. I didn’t feel like Nutting made me do that, and I was much more focused on retelling the disturbing moments to people I knew than I was in trying to tie them back to the larger theme, especially if one considers Nutting’s own take on the matter in the Introduction, in which she says that, in short stories,

“[w]hat’s revealed to be most surreal aren’t the things that differ from reality — the odd setting or mythical beings — but the things that do not change no matter how bizarre the story’s world. Such as loneliness.”
MARGARYTA GOLOVCHENKO is an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, and an editor for The Spectatorial. She is the author of Miso Mermaid and Pastries and Other Things History Has Tried to Kill Us With, and is the recipient of the Vic One Chamberlin-Goodison Prize in Poetry and the Northrop Frye Undergraduate Research Award and Fellowship.
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