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November 18, 2010

Review of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting

Alissa’s book won the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction, which was chosen by Ben Marcus. That’s promising!

While the innovative qualities aren’t obvious to me, as it seems to be a somewhat traditional collection of meaty, action oriented humorous short stories, I enjoyed it very much. I’m hard to please when it comes to fiction that isn’t clearly experimental, and this one did it for me.

I found my self marveling over the incredible imagination, the masterful storytelling, and the complete absurdity that was so intense it left me breathless at times, saying WOW! Out loud, multiple times, after I had laid the book down by my bed, and was lying there, staring, eyes extra wide open, stunned.

If you have a very weak stomach, I would say you’ll need a friend to censor this book before you read it. There will be black lines drawn through enough passages to make it look like a document released by the Freedom of Information Act.

The humor may not be elevating, wholesome, and inspiring as to the beauties of our human race. It may leave you feeling a little dark about being alive, at the same time you are laughing inside at nearly every line. You may even feel like throwing up sometimes, in the same way you might if you drink too much rum with a pirate who is devilishly handsome while he steals your mother’s underwear when she isn’t looking.

The narrator of “Dinner” begins the collection by boiling in a kettle along with five others. The language immediately as obviously timed so perfectly to make a wry impression, I have to suspect she’s one of those people who make you laugh constantly when standing there telling you, with exquisite inflections you about the horrors of her day. It has to take a lifetime of constant practice to hone the level of toss off humor Alissa Nutting presents in this book.

The boiling narrator, as many of the women in the book do, wants to be romantic about things, such as imagining they are boiling in a vat of tears, but life most often prevents it before many words in any given sentence attach the mistaken hope. And if the characters manage romance, it’s usually completely ridiculous. In this story, though the man next to her isn’t her type, she decides to make the best of it and tells him she loves him, which leads to minutes of romance before they are all removed from the gruesome pot one by one, as one of them calls out a long list of names which gives them all something to think about.

Most stories are longer, with involved plots full of bizarre twists and startling characters, such as “The Model’s Assistant” with a beautiful, nonplussed woman named Garla, who answers “Vodka” to many questions and equally hard to interpret phrases to others. Again, the narrator makes the best of a tough situation, to find unlikely companionship. The longing of the characters in these stories is touching and does make them lovable in spite of how far fetched their actions are. This ungainly narrator ingratiates herself to the model and says “We all must be fourth grade sandwiches to Garla.”

Characters host organism within their bodies, get intimate with garden gnomes, get racy with the devil, play animals in a cheesy children’s show, smoke the hair of the embalmed, and oh so much more. Some of the stories are so cringingly vivid and just keep going in their alternate reality, they become permanent parts of you, like absorbable sutures.

One of those is “Porn Star” which begins “I’m expected to have anal sex with the winning contestant on the moon. I work on an Adult Network reality show called Eat It, where male contestants eat all they can of a given substance in order to win some level of fornication with the program’s hostesses.” As you can imagine, this, like “The Model’s Assistant,” is one of the many places where the black marks will show up in the copies censored for vomit scenes.

“Band Leader’s Girlfriend” is another of those stories that will absorb into the wounds it makes in you as you laugh your outer layer off painfully.  The drugged out couple base their religion on things Worm. “The free love of the Worm Eternal instructs us to see one another as fellow worms, genderless, openings identical and indistinguishable.”

The most impressive of those is “Delivery Woman,” with another character who finds what love she can convince herself is there in an absurd situation, bonding with someone who shares the same title as herself—independent space cargo transporter whose entire conversation with her is pornographic. Their changing relationship to her mother’s newly unfrozen body is one of the most spectacular twists I’ve experience in literature.

Alissa Nutting received her MFA degree from the University of Alabama, where she edited their Black Warrior Review. She was awarded Cobain and Schaeffer Fellowships for Fiction. She is managing editor of Fairy Tale Review as well as fiction editor for Witness.

The book is beautiful visually too, with luminous and appropriately bizarre glossy cover art with sickly dark circles under the eyes, by Catrin Welz-Stein.
Review of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting

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Tantra Bensko
Tantra Bensko, MFA, teaches Fiction Writing online through UCLA Extension Writing Program, Writing Academy, Lit Demon, and her own academy. She maintains the resource site, Everything Experimental Writing. She has a couple hundred flash, story, novelette, and novellas in magazines and anthologies, as well poems, chapbooks, literary theory, reviews, and books. She has an MA from FSU and an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop. She lives in Berkeley.

2 comments to Review of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting

  • Minnette Coleman

    Tantra: Thanks for this review. I love the way you talk about the book. It does make me want to buy it. Always on the lookout for bold women writers.
    Like you!

  • Thank you, yes, it’s odd how little we find women writers represented in anthologies even of experimental literature. Alissa’s voice is tough without compromising her essential self, and her prose appealing to both women and men’s sensibilities. The stories are action packed and never sentimental, and they are full of irony and surprisingly impactful sentences all the way through.

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