No 566 Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill #20booksofsummer

Bad Behavior was published in 1988 and it marked a striking debut from Mary Gaitskill. This collection of nine stories features tales of sexual obsession, drug addiction, and the darkest sides of human relationships.

bad behaviour

Several of the stories feature young women working as prostitutes, through either choice or necessity, most with a striking naïveté despite their self-awareness. Peopled with speed freaks, johns and struggling writers, the bad behaviour of the title is often self-propelled, focusing on human nature at its most perverse and delusional.

In ‘Connection’, Susan looks back on a friendship with the volatile and emotional Leisha who she thinks she spots one afternoon on a New York street. In reminiscing about her erstwhile friend, Susan offers up more about herself than she can imagine.

It seemed to her as though her friendship with Leisha had never been what she would now call a friendship at all, but a complex system of reassurance and support for self-involved fantasies that they had propped up between them and reflected back and forth.

This is true of most of the relationships in these stories. No coming together is entirely what it seems and neither party is coming together for the same goal. In ‘Trying To Be’, Sandra, a prostitute, develops a friendship with a regular customer Bernard, but their attempts to take their relationship beyond that of prostitute and john fail miserably. Sandra is not even honest with herself about what she is.

Stephanie wasn’t a ‘professional lady’ exactly, tricking was just something she sipped into, once a year or so, when she was feeling particularly revolted by clerical work, or when she couldn’t pay her bills.

This self-delusion is apparent in all the characters here, so when they try to make a relationship work, there is never a happy conclusion. ‘A Romantic Weekend’ (which turns out to be anything but), opens hopefully with a woman waiting for her date to take her away for the weekend.

She was meeting a man she had recently and abruptly fallen in love with.

Soon the weekend and the courtship falls far short of expectation as we come to understand the mind-set of the man she has fallen for.

With other women whom he had been with in similar situations, he had experienced a relaxing sense of emptiness within them hat had made it easy for him to get inside them and, once there, smear himself all over their innermost territory until it was no longer theirs but his.

Gaitskill’s stories portray a world where love and perversion are one and the same, where desire and longing are packaged up and offered to the lowest bidder for the price of some form of human connection.

In the most well-known of these stories, ‘Secretary’, which was made into a film with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the act of sadomasochistic sex becomes nothing more than an interaction between two people who want very different things.

I enjoyed feeling him impose his brainlessly confident sense of existence on me. He would say, ‘Type this letter’, and my sensibility would contract until the abstractions of achievement and production found expression in the typing of the letter, I was useful.

When her boss begins to spank her, the titular secretary feels nothing more than having been useful. Having been of use, as she was when typing his letters.

There is rough sex in these stories, drug use, abuse and self-harm. Nevertheless, one feels that the real danger comes from within the characters themselves in their craving and their need to be craved.

The prose is taut and clean, belying the subject matter, which brings a lyricism to even the most depraved of the couplings in this collection. Gaitskill’s eye for detail and insight into the human psyche and the lies it can tell itself means that she wonderfully evokes the hidden life, the life that we sometimes hide from ourselves.

Read on: iBooks

Number Read: 181

Number Remaining: 565

20 Books of Summer: 5/20



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Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

8 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I read this collection years ago and remember liking it, it was so different than anything else I’d read at the time. I really admire Mary Gaitskill’s wtiting. Excellent, thorough review!


  2. I read one of Gaitskill’s short stories in an anthology a few years back “The Girl on the Plane.” I thought the writing was excellent, but very dark and intense. It sounds like this collection is also like that.


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