This is a reissue of National Book Award finalist Mary Gaitskill's debut collection, Bad Behavior-powerful stories about dislocation, longing, and desire, which depict a disenchanted and rebellious urban-fringe generation as it searches for human connection. Now a classic, Bad Behavior made critical waves when it was first published, heralding Gaitskill's arrival on the literary scene and her establishment as a sharp, erotically charged, and audaciously funny writer of contemporary literature. Stories included here are "Daisy's Valentine," "A Romantic Weekend," "Something Nice," "An Affair, Edited," "Connection," "Trying to Be," "Secretary," "Other Factors," and "Heaven."
Since this was her first collection, and since I loved Don't Cry (which was a much more introspective and human set of stories), I will still be reading more Gaitskill. But I can't recommend this one.
I write mysteries where people get killed quite regularly. I'd probably view these characters as appropriate for killing. Unsympathetic, nasty, sexually abusive, self-centred to the point of utter narrowness.
I'm not giving up - I'm going to try Gaitskill's more recent book of short stories, and Veronica, her novel. It's a genre that many many people like, and the writing is powerful enough to keep me reading even when I want to go wash my hands.
Follow-up note: Gaitskill is masterful, but I wouldn't like to be her friend.
All the characters are relentlessly observed. The author takes us inside their minds, shows us their delusions and desires, and all their halting attempts to break out and make a connection with another human being. Sometimes this happens, mostly not.
Most of the stories are set in NYC, and as always, the city insinuates itself as a main character.
The final story, "Heaven," is by far the best in pacing as well as overall quality. Fans of well written short stories in general should appreciate this book, but some of the subject matter may be offensive to sensitive types.
“‘I’m sorry I’m not more talkative,’ she said.
‘That’s all right.’ His narrow eyes became feral once again. ‘Women should be quiet.’ It suddenly struck her that it would seem completely natural if he lunged forward and bit her face.
‘I agree,’ she said sharply. ‘There aren’t many men around worth talking to.’
He was nonplussed by her peevish tone. Perhaps, he thought, he’d imagined it.
The word that startles here is, of course, “bit” — a simple verb unadorned by any adverb. But the situation that makes it startling is one Ms. Gaitskill very artfully sets up and deploys with what both precedes and follows the exchange.
If she could keep this up for the length of a novel — I further thought—her prose could put Fifty Shades of Grey to shame in a heartbeat (since the contents of both have a little something in common). I don’t know. I haven’t yet read any of her novels.
The third story in this collection, “Something Nice” — a vignette about a novice prostitute and her middle-aged suitor — left me feeling a bit underwhelmed. That, or I just didn’t get it.
Knowing what we do about Ms. Gaitskill’s curriculum vitae, we can assume that many of the elements in her fourth story — “An Affair, Edited” — are autobiographical. Just the same, it’s a subtle and well-executed psychological profile of a young Manhattan executive and his coterie of friends, colleagues and “amuse-gueules.”
The fifth story, “Connection,” is about anything but. Rather, it’s about the gradual falling out of two former college friends through the bumps, bruises, grinds and all matter of entropy that an older, urban relationship is heir to when that relationship involves two neurotics/borderline psychotics — in other words, two New Yorkers. This story is a superb example of sit-down (rather than drive-by) rage, and the dialogue is the typical stuff of Broadway.
The next piece, “Trying to Be,” is not so much a coming-of-age story as a “coming-to-be” story full of urban angst and anomie. Let’s listen in on a snippet of dialogue between Stephanie (an on-again, off-again prostitute) and Bernard (her currently favorite john) a few days after she’s disposed of “a huge, morose fellow with a gold Pisces chain on his fleshy chest” who coos and woos her with the following:
“‘I bet I know what you was like then,’ he said, rolling over. ‘You was one of them quiet types that never went out. And look at you now.’ There was no malice in his voice; it was a wonderless comment, which made its accuracy all the depressing. (N.B. Can you get any better than “wonderless”??!!) Then there was the concave-chested little person who so offended her with the pre-session suggestion that she ‘suck his tits’ that she involuntarily threw up her hands and said, ‘No. No. Just no,’ and walked out of the room and down the stairs, not caring whether or not Christine (N. B. the madam) fired her, which she didn’t. ‘I’ll send one of the other girls up,’ she said to Stephanie as they huddled in the kitchen. ‘You’ve worked hard today and I can afford to lose that geek if he walks.’
On the fourth day, when Bernard finally appeared, she fell into his arms. ‘I’m so glad to see you,’ she said, feeling his rather automatic placating response. She told him how terrible the last few days had been.
‘This guy was there for half an hour droning about his stupid high school days, and how important he was, and how all the cute girls would go out with him. It was just dreadful.’ She noted Bernard’s puzzled expression and laughed. ‘I guess it doesn’t sound so bad, but it really was. For a while I was in his life, and his life was lousy.’”
And on the very next page (p. 120), while club-hopping with her friend Babette, Stephanie (I suspect as mouthpiece for Ms. Gaitskill) gives us this summation about one of Manhattan’s oh-so-glorious dance palaces: “Then she would remember what she was like before she came to New York and realize that this was what she had pictured: herself in a glamorous club full of laughing or morosely posing people. In frustration, she would decide that the reason it all seemed so dull was that she was seeing only the outermost layer of a complex society that spoke in ingenious and impenetrable signs to outsiders who, even if they were able to physically enter the club, were unable to enter the conversations that so amused everyone else. This was a discouraging idea, but it was better than thinking that the entire place was a nonsensical bore that people actually longed to belong in.”
Rather damning stuff, that. But oh so accurate!
Oops. Before we leave “Trying to Be” to rest in peace, I feel compelled to note two errata that unhappily slipped by the copy editors of this 2009 Simon & Schuster Paperbacks edition of a work first published in 1988. On p. 115, we have “(h)e loved the idea of kooky, arty girls who lives (sic) ‘bohemian’ lives and broke all the rules.” And on p. 120, “Babette…her slim hip tilted one way, he (sic) head the other.” Where have all the editors gone, Peter, Paul & Mary? Gone to hayseeds, every one.
Although her next story, “Secretary,” actually made it up into Hollywood klieg lights, I just watched the trailer and consequently now suspect—based on the few scenes and snippets of dialogue I saw—that it was sadly and moronically Fifty-shadelerized. Well, as they say: any PR—no matter how bad—is good PR.
“Other Factors” is more angst and anomie — and talk, talk, talk. All very NYC. And the creeping gentrification of certain parts of Brooklyn suggests that before too much longer, there won’t be much more than a bridge separating these two burgs.
The final story, “Heaven,” is, I think, a family saga of sorts. But I just couldn’t connect the dots well enough to figure out the point of it. Oh, and one more oops! on p. 201: “(w)hen the (sic) talked to anyone else, their faces stiffened slightly.”
Does this introductory reading of Mary Gaitskill encourage me to read more of her stuff? Absolutely! — if for no other reason than to see how it stacks up against the stuff of Joyce Carol Oates, Lorrie Moore and Ella Leffland—not to mention of Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor.
I enjoyed this collection. These stories all feature women living in the greater NY area. Most are probably in their 20s, but Virginia, the family matriarch of the last story, is a grandmother by the end. All of these women are dealing with relationships--with boyfriends and girlfriends, friends, husbands and children, bosses. They are all struggling in some way--with abusive bosses or weird exes. Friendships that did not work out. Some are young women frustrated with still living at home, others have a child back at home. The behavior of all of these women might be seen as traditionally "bad"--but they all know something is/was wrong and try to work it out.
Gaitskill narrated the audiobook and I thought she did a wonderful job. I liked her voice, and she has a touch of a lisp that I really liked, it made the stories more real. She also read the stories as she wanted them interpreted, pacing-wise, and I am not sure I would have read them that way myself. I'm not sure I would have liked them as much just reading them as a book--she definitely added to my enjoyment. Which is not something I usually say about audiobooks.
While most of the stories do indeed involve some sort of bad behaviour, it seemed to me that the stories are largely about the thoughts and actions that lead to and are generated by it. I really liked this approach. Although I found many of the protagonists hard to like, I felt that I could understand them to varying extents. Gaitskill's writing is wonderful - precise and unshowy. It's exactly the right style for most of the stories she has chosen.
The only story that puzzled me was the final one, Heaven. It's very different to the other stories and revolves around a mother and the activities of her children and niece. It's nicely written, but I couldn't quite see what connected it to the likes of 'Secretary' and 'A Romantic Weekend'. Perhaps nothing!
I enjoyed this collection very much and would definitely read more by Gaitskill.