Mary Gaitskill’s 1998 short story collection Bad Behavior was so profound when it hit shelves, even Michiko Kuktani had something nice to say about it:
“She takes us on a meticulously observed documentary tour of [her characters’] inner and outer lives, giving us fierce portraits of individuals rather than a gallery of eccentric types.”
(This, despite after many of the short stories in the book had been rejected by the major literary publications.)
Gaitskill spares no expense, with each story feeling more shocking than the one before. To be sure, these are not horror stories, but they can certaintly be difficult to read and make one feel quite squeamish. (The second story, A Romantic Weekend had two characters so awful in their own ways—the woman seeking love and falls into the role of victimization while the man repeatedly dehumanizes her—that I admit it was difficult for me to get through, and if you’re sensitive to trigger warnings, this might be one to avoid.) But the situations and people that repulse us are precisely the ones Gaitskill is determined to humanize. By the end of each section, we do not necessarily empathize with a character who is sleeping with a prostitute but loves his wife, but we do hate him a little less.
I’ve waited a few weeks to write this review, mostly because I wasn’t sure how I felt about the collection. With the exception of the final essay, Heaven, which is gorgeous and elegant yet painful all the same, each story had its own way of making me feel incredibly uncomfortable by its end. There are several themes and situations that are repeated but felt less of a way to carry the stories forward and more like circling back on the same characters and ideas again and again. There are a lot of submissive (straight, white) women and a lot of domineering (straight, white) men. Take the opening essay, Daisy’s Valentine. In it, a man (who also happens to be a functioning drug addict) decides he likes a woman in his office despite still living with his girlfriend, who we learn he repeatedly cheats on. The man’s character is awful, believing he can do and feel as he pleases, and he remains frustratingly unchanged in the end. In A Romantic Weekend, following a weekend away where the man repeatedly abuses and ridicules the woman, we’re left with an image of them cuddling in their car as they drive back to their lives in the city. Something Nice follows a married man who regularly sees the same prostitute. This story holds the sneakily feminist and perfect exchange:
“You shouldn’t come to prostitutes looking for honesty.”
“You’re not a prostitute. Don’t say that about yourself.”
“What do you think I am?”
“You just happen to be a pretty, sexy girl who, uh—”
“I have sex for money.”
“Well, all right.” He slapped her thigh nervously. “You’re right. You’re a prostitute.” It sounded so horrible. “But you’re still a wonderful girl.” He grabbed and snuggled her.
It’s a keen contradictory moment, when the man sees the woman for her humanity versus how he is expected to view her given her powerless position. To be fair, this story ends on a feminist note. By the end, the man sees the woman prostitute out in the day, and she politely ignores him, formalizing a power shift. An Affair, Edited is a brief piece vignette of a man who recalls a horrible affair with a woman after spotting her on the street, then engages in a relationship with a woman he also seems to hate:
“Why was he always attracted to these small, dramatic women?” moans the man.
Connection is where we see the first use of a repetitious female relationship, where the friends “broke up,” leaving one woman to wonder regularly about the other, while the other is viewed as hysterical and crazy, but, to be sure, more successful. In Trying to Be, we return to a prostitute (but now we are from her point of view as a regular woman just trying to make it in New York) and a man who visits her regularly. Secretary was a story of abuse and power and absolutely the most difficult to get through. It is a story of an older man and his sexual mortification and abuse of his young female employee. As we watch this abuse develop from nothing to something, we are reminded just how power inserts itself so easily between two human beings, based solely on status, age, gender, race, and economics. Following the first instance of abuse, there is delicately wrought pain in the lines:
“When I went home that night, everything was the same. My life had not been disarranged by the event except for a slight increase in the distance between me and my family. My behind was not even red when I looked at it in the bathroom mirror.”
Other Factors is our first introduction to a character who isn’t heterosexual, but again, the trope of the more successful friend comes in. The final essay, Heaven, pulls mercifully away from the themes of male and class privilege to spend some time with a family who has lost a child. It is tender and gorgeous and a welcome reprieve by the end of the collection.
On one hand, it was difficult, as a woman, to read story after story of (white) men with power exercise their privilege over and over again at the expense of powerless women. On the other hand, are these stories written from the framework of a feminist exhausted by men who tramp all over women? Should it not be the case that women should feel brutally honest? Because, despite how painful they can be, the stories Gaitskill is creating are not made of characters and situations that feel false. Quite the contrary, everything feels true to the point of making us want to bury our heads in the sand (or, tear shit up.)
Gaitskill’s writing is sharp. What makes her stories so against the grain for any writer’s workshop (re: Short Story Writing 101) is that her characters, on the whole, remain unchanged by the end of the story. This is a whole new way of examining people and situations. Is it the case that we don’t always change when something happens to us? Is it more honest to say we are rarely confronted with our own privilege enough to make us empathize or stop what we’re doing? Is it true that things might just continue to stay as they are? For this, Gaitskill knows exactly what she’s doing.