Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting

Porn star. Bandleader’s girlfriend. Deliverywoman. Cat owner. Alcoholic. Dancing rat. Magician. These are a random selection of the Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls in Alissa Nutting’s collection of short stories. Don’t be fooled—even the ones that sound normal aren’t.

Take “Deliverywoman.” The narrator of this story would have a fairly normal day job, though she is notably an intergalactic deliverywoman. With some time to kill between stops, she pops into a rather unusual event: “Justice Freeze, a cryogenic contractor largely employed by the government’s penal system, is going belly-up and holding a large auction. Several criminals whose permacapsules are programmed to not unlock for centuries are up on the aution block.”

One of those permacapsules houses the deliverywoman’s mother, a homicidal maniac who killed the deliverywoman’s father and has 414 years left on her sentence. CargoBabe (our narrator’s online chat handle) is able to get her for a good price and, hoping for “a healing experience,” loads her onto the ship and continues her way around the galaxy.

Or, she would, if not for the suggestion of her online boyfriend, FluidTransfer69. CargoBabe has not been what you would call lucky in love, and FluidTransfer69 is the first interested party in a while. Their relationship consists of bland chitchat followed by some pretty one-sided dirty talk. That’s probably not right—I’m sure CargoBabe participates; she just doesn’t really care. In any case, FluidTransfer69 knows how to unlock a permacapsule, which seems about as tough as jailbreaking an iPhone. Before you can say “bad idea,” CargoBabe’s mother is out, about, and insane. Her first words on realizing her rescuer is her daughter are, “Jesus, you turned out homely. Let me see your rack.”

Within 24 hours CargoBabe knows she needs to get away, and marrying FluidTransfer69 seems like the best way. But as she’s about to make her escape she finds herself stabbed in the chest. It’s her mother who will be picked up by CargoBabe’s boyfriend—in reality an ex-con who engineered everything, from online sex chat relationship to CargoBabe’s stop at the auction to her mom’s ultimate freedom.

So this is CargoBabe’s real delivery, and it certainly seems even less clean than whatever space junk she’s used to transporting around. Deliverywoman is her day job, her identity (CargoBabe), and her destiny. She chooses some of those aspects, and another is chosen for her. While the jobs and identities, along with the mechanisms Nutting uses to create them, vary, this general pattern operates throughout the collection.

That takes care of the unclean, and the jobs, so what we have left are the women and girls. The stories are clearly not focused on traditional conceptions of femininity (or are they—are porn stars not traditional?), but the narrators have familiar qualities and concerns, and receive familiar treatment, that we can recognize as women-and-girls issues and problems. The deliverywoman is concerned with her love life and her mother; she is victimized by her mother and a man. In one of my favorite stories in the collection, “Bandleader’s Girlfriend,” in between the sex and drugs and rock and roll the narrator finds out her sister has breast cancer and feels an overwhelming need to help her, if not heal her. The “Dancing Rat” is worried about her and her boyfriend’s failure to conceive, and what his statements about “free sex” really mean. The “Teenager” gets an abortion—and her boyfriend stolen. And the “She-Man,” after escaping a life of prostitution, is exposed as a transsexual to her current boyfriend by her former pimp.

None of this, though, is what you would call depressing, and the women aren’t victims. Even the one who’s about to be eaten for dinner:

I am the only woman in the kettle, which strikes me as odd. I’m voluptuous and curvy; I can understand why someone would want to gobble me up. The men do not look so delicious.

Nutting is definitely a talented prose stylist; her writing is funny, moving, exact, and unobtrusive. The stories are almost surprisingly even. While some interested me less at first, that almost always changed by the time I reached the end of a given vignette.

Challenge completed! This is the second book Matt Rowan of Bob Einstein’s Literary Equations selected for the bibliographing reading challenge, and now I have two contemporary authors on my don’t-miss list: Nutting and Patrick Somerville. Thanks, Matt, for playing along!