Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill (1988) – Review

Mary Gaitskill’s collection of short stories, Bad Behaviour, first published in 1988, are mostly set in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, New York and are vignettes into lives of, often, young, white-collar workers and aspiring actors and artists suffering social and economic dislocation and despair. Gaitskill’s focus is upon relationships, with economic struggle in the background.

Though sometimes written from the male point of view, women seem to be the primary focus of the stories. Often they are caught in uneven power dynamics but Gaitskill rarely presents simple scenarios of victim and abuser. The abusive men are sometimes depicted as vulnerable, in their own way, or, in the case of prostitution, a party in a transaction. There is an acceptance, at times, by the young female office worker and writer characters of transactional and/or exploitative, sexual relations, perhaps, reflecting a reality that goes largely ignored.

When it comes to moral judgment, Gaitskill seems, often, to be directing the reader to look beyond individuals to the nature of our society: “It was a busy corner; traffic ran savagely in the street, and people stamped by, staring in different directions, clutching their packages, briefcases and huge screaming radios, their faces concentrated but empty.”

A notable feature of some of Gaitskill’s writing is her detachment from her characters, leaving their actions, at times, ambiguous – particularly, in their pain: “One of the more obvious questions he had asked me was, “Debby, do you ever have the sensation of being outside of yourself, almost as if you can actually watch yourself from another place?” I hadn’t at the time, but I did now. And it wasn’t such a bad feeling at all.”

An intriguing aspect of Gaitskill’s stories is the way that focus on characters shifts, so that often, I was never sure of which relationship, event or, even character, was going to be the most important. This is most evident in the final story in the collection, “Heaven”, which spans decades, telling the story of Virginia and her husband, their children and some other relations. Their story contains the vicissitudes of life, from ageing, unexpected death, domestic violence to estrangement and reuniting. Gaitskill describes Virginia moving between events and relationships, including her shifting relationship with her husband and children, with a concision of emotion that suggested to me a depiction of numbness.

Virginia’s sister enters the story near the end and, perhaps, gives the reader a glimpse of both the pain that life has wrought and what is yet to come: “That’s why I enjoy working with old folks. It’s marvelous to watch some of them blossom again, especially the ones who’ve been in those horrible nursing homes. They can be like kids with the openness – it’s exciting to give them another chance to experience it.”

Gaitskill seems to have a deep understanding of social interaction and their underlying, sometimes, repressed, emotions: “She could tell from the little oil slick on Dr. Fangelli’s voice that he enjoyed seeing his patients helpless and openmounthed in his chair, that it made him feel powerful, and, in fact, at this moment, he was sort of powerful. Well, that was all right. The universe needed spaces for power to move into. It liked those spaces and valued them.”

In the same story, Factors, the central character’s psycho-philosophical questioning of the meaning of her life are shared: “The image of herself at her desk, typing, became a scrawled notation for “job,” but job was only another notation for something she barely sensed as a dark area of elements crossing and recrossing one another in an unreadable grid.”

Mary Gaitskill’s stories in Bad Behaviour can feel nihilistic and, occasionally, her characters can feel superficial, but her matter-of-fact but careful depiction of dysfunctional human relationships is provoking, and her attention to her suffering characters suggests to me a deep compassion.

Bad Behaviour By Mary Gaitskill
Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill, Simon & Schuster. First published 1988.

Author: Workers' Archive

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