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Bad Behavior – Andy gets down and dirty with Mary Gaitskill

July 20, 2014

“Hate” may be too strong a word for Netty’s reaction to these stories. “Contempt” probably isn’t. She certainly didn’t like them, did she? I didn’t like them so much I’ve already ordered in Gaitskill’s other two collections of stories (she is not widely available in Australia). I don’t think I’d heard of the writer before Netty mentioned her late last year. I’m quite glad she got the name wrong.

This is the first image that comes up when you google "bad behavior"

This is the first image that comes up when you google “bad behavior”

On one level Netty’s criticisms have some grounds – the stories are autobiographical and self-indulgent, the woman in most if not all of them is essentially a version of Gaitskill, and some of  what she experiences and does is duplicated in a story here and a story there. I suppose I can understand why someone might find these things irritating. I didn’t. I loved it.

Maybe I’m reading something into these stories that isn’t there, or maybe Netty missed it, or maybe Netty didn’t miss it, maybe it’s there and she detected it and it annoyed here even more. But there’s an irony at work in most of these stories, a self-deprecatory distance that compensates for the stories’ self-indulgence. Yes, Mary says, I’m writing about myself. But god, was I a prat or what? If these stories are, for the most part, autobiographical, I don’t think Gaitskill necessarily has that much time for herself as she recounts the situations in which she has found herself in the past. That might be too strong. There is authorial empathy, but also disdain.

The snatch of WH Auden (Auden’s snatch! Ooh err vicar!) that opens Bad Behavior is a tad beguiling. September 1, 1939 was the day Germany invaded Poland and is generally regarded as the day World War II began. Mingling words like “conventions” and “furniture” and “home” with words like “conspire” and “fort” suggests, to me at least, conflict on the home front – the battle of the sexes, perhaps? – while “lost in a haunted wood” perfectly conjures New York’s “blackboard jungle” (sans teachers, natch). “Children afraid of the night/Who have never been happy or good” arguably describes every character in this collection.

"I mean, like, I totes get irony, I mean, like, obvs."

“I mean, like, I totes get irony, I mean, like, obvs.”

Not all of the stories impressed equally; among my favourites would be A Romantic Weekend, which is a truly hilarious account of complete breakdown in communication between a woman who thinks she is a masochist but probably just feels a bit sorry for herself and a man who thinks he’s a sadist and probably is, but is also a total dick. They get to a point late in the story where they begin to understand each other, and then, by story’s end, are pretty much back exactly where they started. The two most explicit sex-work stories, Something Nice and Trying to Be, were also favourites (prostituion may be mentioned in a couple of other stories, but in these two it’s central). Something Nice is written from a male perspective, as is the first story, Daisy’s Valentine, which is good but not as impressive. This shift of perspective adds another level to the collection, and the final scene of Something Nice is fabulous. Secretary is also memorable, as is Heaven, the final story, and I disagree with Netty about that story’s final scene – it’s actually wonderful and heartbreaking, given what’s come before.

In among the occasionally sado-masochistic sex, and the more often run-of-the-mill sex, the booze and the drugs, the wannabe writers, the prostitution, the most horrible workplaces, the mostly horrible parties, the mostly horrible apartments, the mostly horrible people, there’s another dominant theme in at least a couple of stories: the alienated best friend. Clearly during her first years in New York Gaitskill’s friendships were occasionally fraught. Perhaps the friendships referenced in Bad Behavior boil down to just the one, or maybe Mary was a tad contrary and alienated a bunch of people. Either way, it’s almost as obvious a motif in the collection as sex work.

I will acknowledge there are a couple of factors that might cloud my judgment of these stories. The first is that they are all very New York, a city I’ve never visited, a city I must. must visit sometime soon. I don’t know why I’m so goddamned obsessed with it but I am. And obviously I’ll be disappointed as all fuck when I finally get there, because it can’t possibly live up to my expectations, but get there I must. These stories are set in a New York I suspect no longer exists – written in the 70s, I believe, published in the 80s. Doesn’t matter. I want.

The other factor is that the stories I write myself, and very occasionally manage to get published, are autobiographical and self-indulgent and quite often rather filthy and at least (I hope) slightly ironic and self-deprecating. So I guess, you know, Gaitskill might’ve struck a chord of some sort, on that level. Although mine are all waaaaay shorter, and not remotely as good.

In closing, I would like to inform the woman on the front cover of my edition, and also Netty’s: That is not how you plank. If you want an exercise that hits your abs, kindly refer to a workout manual. Thank you.

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