Crush barriers
Mary Gaitskill writes fiction for the post-Prozac generation. They've been there and done that, and many other things besides. Her characters are mainly single, mainly wounded, cautiously hopeful. Their complexity and self-absorption are wielded like reluctant shields. They are fastidious enough to distinguish between a "date", a "crush" and a "screw". They ruminate on old affairs that have acquired a nostalgic glow.

Because They Wanted To is a perfectly formed set of stories about alienation in modern times. They deal with relationships - love, sex, families. Lovers or aspirant lovers make contact, then slope back into their own universes. Family breaches are fiercely felt, but never fully articulated.

A balding salesman on a plane mournfully recalls his involvement in a college gang-bang. He meets the girl next to him, who resembles the girl of old, and then rewrites the memory in the new-found language of confessional talk shows. Two women meet, make love. Their parting is tentative and resigned: "I probably won't call you for a while," says one to the other, later, "but you can call me, if you need to process." A woman has a comically obtuse series of meetings with an erotically tempting dentist. Only in "The Blanket" is true joy really tapped, in an older woman's affair with a young boy. Numb excitation and wary self-protection are more common social devices.

Gaitskill's characters are sleek professionals with pockets of unfulfilled longing, or gentle denizens of the caring professions with rogue impulses. The social milieu she portrays is as flat and uniform as the hum of an air conditioner. She deals with emotional intricacy rather than depth. Events, plot-lines and characters fade into a blur: it's the details, sentence by sentence, that blind you with their dazzle.

In "Comfort", Jacquie is captured with her nose in an Edith Wharton novel. Gaitskill shares Wharton's forensic awareness of what happens just beneath the surface of high-toned encounters in public places. Though the sexes are equal in power to manipulate, they are specific in their mating signals. Gaitskill has a nice eye for physical nuance: "When she talked she pawed the ground with her foot and pulled her hair over her mouth; she looked away from you and then snuck a look back to see what you thought of her".

A subtle engagement with neurotic vulnerabilities undercuts the restraints of pebble-smooth prose and drop-dead cool. In terms of delicacy and tenderness, Gaitskill's world resembles that of F Scott Fitzgerald. These stories are often depressing to reflect on, but gloriously accomplished in the way they are told.