Bad Behavior (1988)
Mary Gaitskill (1954)
If someone wrote about your life, describing the drama and action in it, you might wish it could be more exciting or at least more interesting, but I expect you wouldn’t be all that embarrassed to have it appear in print. But what if that story, instead of focusing on the events of your life, captured the jumble of thoughts and images that flare up uncontrollably to disrupt your concentration at work, or keep you awake at night staring at the ceiling? Having those often chaotic and irrational mixtures of secret desires, fears and rationalizations appear in a story for anyone to read would be mortifying indeed.
Fortunate it is then for the characters in Mary Gaitskill’s collection of short stories Bad Behavior that they are fictional, and so incapable of suffering from the revelation of their most private thoughts and bitter realizations about themselves.
These nine stories in fact contain little direct action. Instead, most of the drama occurs in the character’s thoughts, as Gaitskill examines the psychological impacts on people of what are often seemingly minor events. In some stories, for example, a chance meeting triggers an avalanche of memories that carries characters back into a painful and buried past that they suddenly find haunts their present. In others, what might seem to be an encounter of little significance causes characters to suddenly question their most fundamental assumptions about themselves. Gaitskill lets us peer into the minds of her characters, revealing how quickly and easily memories and dreams can dissolve someone’s carefully constructed image of themselves into a roiling turmoil of uncertainty, doubt and regret.
In the opening story, Daisy’s Valentine, a married man whose world is organized around a three day drug binge he and his wife engage in weekly finds himself attracted to a woman at work who has moved from one disappointing boyfriend to the next. When the pair begin going out they find themselves mired in misunderstanding, connected by little more than their mutual desire to move beyond the dismal present of their lives.
A woman agrees to go out of town on vacation with a man she’s just met in A Romantic Weekend. Attracted to his forceful behavior, she has revealed to him her masochistic tendencies, and so triggered his sadistic fantasies. But when they finally head out on the trip, the two struggle to understand why the exciting plans they had each imagined for the weekend fail to materialize, and why the other has suddenly become so different from the person they expected.
Something Nice opens with a man visiting a brothel while his wife is out of town on a several week trip. When he chats up the prostitute during his session in the room, he finds her willing to engage in the conversation as if he had just met her casually somewhere. Returning to see her the following nights, he feels he is building a relationship with her different from the typical one between a john and a prostitute, and begins to imagine that she views the situation the same way, and that their relationship could carry on outside the brothel.
Despite a good job in Manhattan and an active dating life, the main character in An Affair, Edited begins to question the direction his life has taken when, walking a different route to work one day, he passes a girl he had dated back at the University of Michigan. Their relationship had ended badly, but after seeing her he finds his thoughts drifting back to memories of their time together and of his life back at school. Erotic fantasies of her mash together with others of girls he has met since, only to clash with moments of clarity about what he may have missed out on.
A woman momentarily mistakes a street beggar for an old girlfriend as Connection opens. The friendship had ended bitterly, but memories of their time together now coming flooding back to the woman, forcing her to reevaluate her assumptions about why it had ended at all.
In Trying To Be a woman who came to New York to be a writer instead drifts in and out of clerical jobs, which she occasionally quits out of boredom to work as a prostitute for brief periods. During one of her stints in a brothel she meets a john who seems genuinely interested in her; when they begin meeting outside of the brothel, he continues to pay her, leaving her confused and reflective about where her life is taking her.
In Secretary --- turned into a feature film released in 2002 starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader --- a young woman with a dim and uncertain view of her future begins a job working as a receptionist and secretary for a lawyer in a small, stand-alone office building. When the lawyer discovers errors in some of the letters she types up, his methods for punishing her take a startling twist, leaving her both appalled and aroused.
A woman runs into an old friend on the street, in Other Factors, someone she has not seen for a couple of years. He triggers unwelcome memories for her of someone she had thought of as a friend, but who she felt had unexpectedly turned on her, and with whom she had therefore abruptly cut off contact. Since that time she has built a comfortable life for herself, having found good work and a stable relationship, but when an opportunity to see her former friend comes up, she struggles with how to handle the sudden resurrection of past disappointment.
The lead character in Heaven is wife, mother, sister and aunt, with these roles sometimes bringing her joy and happiness, and other times buffeting her life with struggle and pain. Perhaps most challenging are the unexpected twists, the moments when what seemed to be going well suddenly turns bad, and through it all finding a way to keep moving forward.
Reading any of the stories in this collection is a bit like staring at a slow-motion accident: we are bewildered and disturbed, but we cannot look away. It can be a struggle to know whether to feel pity, empathy or outrage for the characters in these stories, and a part of deciding which of these feelings is appropriate can be recognizing in some of these characters our own weakness and failings.
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf