In which Netty comes to the conclusion that Bad Behavior should have dispensed with the “behaviour” bit …

July 16, 2014

It wasn’t till afterwards that I realised I’d done it again. As in, mixed up authors. Chose one author when I actually meant to choose another. It happened once before in the Reading Challenge, in, I think, the second year – Andy and I read Raymond Carver when I thought we were reading Raymond Chandler. Doyen of the American short story versus hard-boiled mystery writer. Ah, yep …

Of course, that turned out to be a masterstroke – I still think, seven years down the track, that of all the authors we’ve read during that time, close to 100 now!, that Carver is my favourite by a country mile. And I say that in full knowledge that we’ve read some absolute corkers in that time. We’ve also read some absolute clunkers, thankfully far fewer in number.

So, yeah, Mary Gaitskill was my choice; I was enthusing to Andy that finally we’d be reading a female member of the ‘90s American literary brat pack (“I think she even went out with David Foster Wallace,” I exclaimed). Memo to self: do your research first: it was actually Mary Karr who dated Wallace and hung out with Franzen, Eugenides, Moody, et al. She writes literary memoirs, I guess kind of like Elizabeth Wurtzel – same era, too. Now, Wurtzel (who also, incidentally, dated Wallace once – or maybe just had a fling with him) is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m a big, big fan. Maybe I could be a big fan of Karr’s too. Maybe we can find out in another instalment of the Reading Challenge, coming to you in the not-too-distant future.

Harking back to the corkers versus clunkers debate, I’m afraid to say for me, Gaitskill is more the latter than the former. I didn’t really enjoy Bad Behavior, her (critically acclaimed – she even gets a shout-out from Alice Munro on the sleeve) 1988 collection of short stories. In fact, I kept getting nasty flashbacks to another collection of short stories I read just last year, Frederick Barthelme’s Moon Deluxe (you can read what I had to say about that here). The two have much in common – unmemorable characters in stories that don’t really go anywhere and have unsatisfactory endings.

For all the ill-will I felt towards Moon Deluxe, I will say this for it – at least those stories had variety of both characters and plot. Bad Behavior was Gaitskill’s first published work, written in her early twenties, but not making it into print until she was in her mid-thirties (hardly prolific, she has since published two novels and two collection of short stories (or, as she styles it, just “stories”) in the ensuing two and a half decades). And you can tell – it’s very much the first, largely autobiographical work of a writer, telling and retelling the same stories about the same character: namely herself. And that gets real old, real fast. ‘Cos at the end of the day, there’s not much very interesting about a young woman, with tendencies towards depression and masochism (and sheer, tedious whininess), moving to New York City and wanting to make it as a writer, working to make ends meet – often as a prostitute (but hey, no judgement) – while fighting off apathy, procrastination and writer’s block.

Ho hum.

Granted, not all of the stories rehash this character and scenario, but most of them do (reaching a nadir with “Connection”) in one way or another. Gaitskill has been quite open about the fact that she worked as a call girl and a stripper while trying to establish herself as a writer; possibly that is one of the least interesting things about her. Often her stories mine sado-masochism (included in this collection is “Secretary”, which was later made into the not-very-good 2002 movie of the same name, significantly tweaked and starring the awesome Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, which should have made it very good indeedy) – and I’m sorry, but in Gaitskill’s hands, this is not very interesting. The Marquis de Sade, she is not (although, to her credit, she is not Fifty Shades of Grey awful either). Witness “A Romantic Weekend”, which is – both plot and character-wise – just dreadful.

It’s not that Gaitskill can’t write. She can. And she knows how to structure a story. (Then again, so can the aforementioned Barthelme.) But geez, this collection is just a drag. I got to the final story “Heaven” and thought my luck finally might have changed – it traces a family of two adults and four children across two states and three decades, and is actually interesting and holds your attention. But then it peters out as unsatisfactorily as its precursors, with a ridiculously naff ending.

Seriously, this book is the literary equivalent of having (rather dull) sex without reaching a climax. You walk away at the end wondering why you bothered and knowing you could do a much better job yourself.

PS: Make sure you read Andy’s views on Bad Behavior, coming to this blog very soon. He has a very, very different take on it to yours truly!


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