Joe Valdez's Reviews > Bad Behavior: Stories

Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill
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bookshelves: anthology, fiction-general

My introduction to the fiction of Mary Gaitskill is Bad Behavior: Stories. Published in 1988, these nine darkly wondrous stories rebelliously refuse to conform; several involve abnormal sexual behavior, but not all. Several take place in Manhattan, but not all. Several are third person accounts, but not all. Several feature female protagonists, but not all. In spite of the eclecticism, I felt a thrill at discovering each entry, which felt like time capsules from the late 20th century, bottled with hang-ups and distractions that impeded happiness in a certain place or time.

-- Daisy's Valentine follows Joey, a clerk at "a filthy secondhand bookstore on the Lower East Side of Manhattan" who sets out to woo Daisy, a typist he's worked with for a year. Beloved by staff and customers alike, Daisy has widely discussed her romantic difficulties, unable to force her pitiful live-in boyfriend to break up with her. Joey's routine with his girlfriend of eight years Diane is just that: routine. The couple stays high on Dexedrine three and a half days a week and Diane can tell there's another woman before there is another woman. Joey spends days designing a special Valentine's Day card for Daisy, handing it to her a week after the holiday.

-- A Romantic Weekend concerns a young woman named Beth who's recently met and become enamored with a married man. She agrees to spend a weekend with her paramour, flying with him from New York to Washington D.C., where he needs to retrieve a car belonging to his wife and drive it back. Spending the night in an empty apartment belonging to his grandmother, the weekend becomes a disaster. Beth is far too strong-willed and opinionated to function as the masochist she's billed herself as, while his dominant tendencies to insult or hurt her only seem to annoy and bore her. Neither understand why this should be so difficult.

He had met her at a party during the previous week. She immediately reminded him of a girl he had known years before, Sharon, a painfully serious girl with a pale, serious face whom he had tormented on and off for two years before leaving for his wife. Although it had gratified him enormously to leave her, he had missed hurting her for years, and had been self-consciously looking for another woman with a similarly fatal combination of pride, weakness and a foolish lust for something resembling passion. On meeting Beth, he was astonished at how much she looked, talked and moved like his former victim. She was delicately morbid in all her gestures, sensitive, arrogant, vulnerable to flattery. She veered between extravagant outbursts of opinion and sudden, uncertain halts, during which she seemed to look at him for approval. She was in love with the idea of intelligence, and she overestimated her own. Her sense of the world, though she presented it aggressively, could be, he sensed, snatched out from under her with little or not trouble. She said, "I hope you are a savage."

-- Something Nice follows "Fred," a veterinarian from Westchester who takes advantage of his wife's business trip to patronize a brothel in Manhattan that he likes. There, he employs the services of "Lisette," a prostitute he spends most of his hour talking to. He lies for no reason, telling the girl that he's a corporate lawyer, regretting it when he later learns that she's an animal lover. She finds Fred gentler and nicer than most of her clients and when he returns over the next two nights, she admits her real name is Jane. Her intelligence and manner appeals to him and he begins to fantasize about meeting her outside the brothel for a real date.

-- An Affair, Edited is about Joel, a film distribution executive in Manhattan who takes a different route to work one day and bumps into Sara, a lover he from the University of Michigan. Hyper-aware of his prospects, Joel has yet to find a woman to accommodate him. He casually dismissed Sarah years ago and appears likely to do the same again.

-- Connection finds Susan, a moderately successful TV magazine editor in Chicago, encountering a bag lady in Manhattan who reminds her of her college friend Leisha, who she lost contact with years ago.

They talked about leather gloves, high heels and their favorite writers. It was the first time that Susan had ever really heard Leisha's voice--the quick, low-pitched voice affected by a certain type of teenage sex star in the fifties and picked up again by bouffant-haired singers in the seventies, only in Leisha it had an intelligent edge that was not ironic but somehow plain and comforting, as if, honey, she'd been there and back, and she knew how important it was just to sit and have a drink and a good talk--which now seemed like a ridiculous affectation in a twenty-one-year-old college student. Susan realized that almost anything you talked about with this girl would seem important. And it appeared that Leisha was having a similar reaction to her. It was, as Leisha said later, the time they fell in love.

-- Trying To Be concerns Stephanie, a frustrated writer who supplements demeaning clerical jobs with work as a prostitute. She begins an odd relationship with one of her clients, a lawyer named Bernard, who under any other circumstance might be a man she'd date. To her surprise, she receives a job offer from an architectural journal hiring an editorial assistant, but finds that a conventional relationship with a man who pays her for sex may not work.

-- Secretary follows the exploits of Debby, who graduates from a secretarial class and with the help of her mother, finds work as the receptionist for a fussy lawyer who punishes typing errors by calling Debby into his office and spanking her.

-- Other Factors finds a literary magazine editor named Constance invited to a birthday by an old friend, dreading a reunion with a woman who rejected their friendship years ago.

-- Heaven concerns Virginia, a married woman in New Jersey grieving the death of her youngest son. The nest now empty and her surviving children grown, Virginia's memory is drawn back to the months her fifteen-year-old niece Lily moved in, the bond that developed between them and was broken. Virginia has to consider that from any other person's perspective, her life has been pretty good.

Lily's presence in Virginia's life began as a series of late-night phone calls and wild letters from Anne. The letters were full of triple exclamation points, crazy dashes or dots instead of periods, violently underlined words and huge swirling capital letters with tails fanning across several lines. "Lily is so withdrawn and depressed." "Lily is making some very strange friends." "Lily is hostile." "I think she may be taking drugs ..." "Think she needs help--George is resisting--may need recommendation of a counselor."

Virginia imagined the brat confronting her gentle sister. Another spoiled, pretty daughter who fancied herself a gypsy princess, barefooted, spangled with bright beads, breasts arrogantly unbound, cavalier in love. Like Magdalen.

"I want to marry Brian in a gypsy wedding," said Magdalen. "I want to have it on the ridge behind the house. Our friends will make a circle around us and chant. I'll be wearing a gown of raw silk with a light veil. And we'll have a feast."

"Does Brian want to marry you?" asked Virginia dryly.


The stories in Bad Behavior often hinge on This Is Your Life moments on the streets of New York--the only city in North America where you can conceivably run into someone you dated or went to college with--but Mary Gaitskill isn't so interested in how relationships can fill a person with something new, but what they can take away or leave in their wake. Her stories are filled with ghosts, deviant thoughts, personal humiliations, the monkey shaking the inner tree of her characters that refuses to shut up. As infrequently complete as most of these stories feel, I was exhilarated reading them, with Trying To Be my favorite.

Of course, she realized what he liked about her. He loved the idea of kooky, art girls who lived "bohemian" lives and broke all the rules. It was the kind of thing he regarded with a certain admiration, but did not want to do himself. He had probably had affairs with eccentric, unpredictable women in college, and then married the most stable, socially desirable woman he could find. This did not make her feel contempt or draw away from him. She liked this vicarious view of herself; it excited and reassured her. She wasn't a directionless girl adrift in a monstrous city, wandering from one confounding social situation to the next, having stupid affairs. She was a bohemian, experimenting. The idea made rock music start playing in her head. She kissed him with something resembling passion.

The city that draws those who dream of being published in The New Yorker or living important lives figures into Bad Behavior, but not every story takes place in New York and what I liked about this collection is how idiosyncratic each story was. Neither love stories or hate stories, they begin with the potential to be either. They took me into risky territory. Gaitskill doesn't provide neat lines and clear resolutions, but I was invigorated. An AFI student named Steven Shainberg was too and he directed Secretary as a wonderful low budget feature film in 2002. Instead of sadomasochism being portrayed as damaging, the screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson proposes that the experience could be liberating. It's accessible and worth watching to see Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader act.

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Reading Progress

January 10, 2016 – Shelved
January 10, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
September 4, 2018 – Started Reading
September 4, 2018 –
page 3
1.44% "Joey felt that his romance with Daisy might ruin his life, but that didn't stop him. He liked the idea in fact. It had been a long time since he'd felt his life was in danger of further ruin, and it was fun to think it was still possible."
September 4, 2018 –
page 9
4.33% "He began doing things to attract Daisy's attention. He wore red pants and a sheathed knife in his belt. He did full splits and handstands. He talked about his active role in the theater department at Benington and his classes with André Gregory. He mentioned the karate class he'd taken, and punched a hole in a box of books. She said, "Joey has done everything!" There was a thrilling note of triumph in her voice."
September 4, 2018 –
page 43
20.67% "His voice was high-pitched and stupidly aggressive, like some weird kid who would walk up to you on the street and offer to take care of your sexual needs. How, she thought miserably, could she have mistaken this hostile moron for the dark, brooding hero who would crush her like an insect and then talk about life and art?"
September 5, 2018 –
page 73
35.1% "They had met at the University of Michigan. It had been such a brief, disturbing affair that he didn't even think of her as an old girlfriend. His memory of her was like a filmy scrap of dream discovered on the floor during a drowsy journey from bed to toilet, or a girl in an advertisement that catches in the cluttered net of memory and persists, waiting to commit sex acts with you later that night."
September 5, 2018 –
page 107
51.44% "Stephanie wasn't a "professional lady" exactly; tricking was just something she slipped into, once a year or so, when she was feeling particularly revolted by clerical work, or when she couldn't pay her bills. She even liked a few of her customers, but she had never considered dating one; she kept her secret forays into prostitution neatly boxed and stored away from her real life."
September 6, 2018 –
page 135
64.9% "My first two weeks were serene. I enjoyed the dullness of days, the repetition of motions, the terms, polite interactions between the lawyer and me. 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."
September 6, 2018 –
page 182
87.5% "She delighted her mother with her comments. "When boys tell me I'm a prude, I say 'You're absolutely right. I cultivate it.'" She was not particularly pretty, but her alert, candid gaze and visible intelligence made her more attractive than most pretty girls. When Virginia began to pay attention to Camille, she could not understand how she had allowed Magdalen to absorb her so completely. Still, there were ghosts."
September 6, 2018 –
page 196
94.23% "Charles became a delicate, pretty adolescent. His eyes were large and green and long-lashed, his neck slender. He slouched like an arrogant little cat. Girls called and asked to speak to him in scared, high-pitched voices. He was rude to them and hung up. The only girl he liked was a homely kid who wore a leather jacket and bleached her hair. But that ended when the girl was sent to some kind of institution."
September 6, 2018 – Finished Reading
September 7, 2018 – Shelved as: anthology
September 7, 2018 – Shelved as: fiction-general

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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Vanessa Joe, I read this when it came out when Vanity Fair wrote an article about “new bad girls of literature” (the other two were Margaret Diehl and Kirstin McCloy.) It bums me out from reading your synopses how few of these I remember. I may have to re-read this.


message 2: by Joe (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joe Valdez Vanessa wrote: "Joe, I read this when it came out when Vanity Fair wrote an article about “new bad girls of literature” (the other two were Margaret Diehl and Kirstin McCloy.) It bums me out from reading your synopses how few of these I remember. I may have to re-read this."

Thank you providing that terrific insight, Vanessa. I guess that headline implies that girls are supposed to write "nice" fiction and when they don't, it demands a study. I need to summarize everything I read or it'll take me much sooner than thirty years to forget what I read!


message 3: by Steven (new) - added it

Steven Godin Haven't read this one Joe, but 'Veronica' I was impressed with.


Vanessa Joe wrote: Thank you providing that terrific insight, Vanessa. I guess that headline implies that girls are supposed to write "nice" fiction and when they don't, it demands a study.

Yeah, the headline is a little cringe-inducing now. Like they are bad girls because they write about SEX. But otherwise, it was a good article and it compelled me to read all three of their debuts (I liked Men the best.)

So weird the random things you remember.


message 5: by Joe (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joe Valdez Steven wrote: "Haven't read this one Joe, but 'Veronica' I was impressed with."

Thanks so much, Steven. Based on your comment and your terrific review, I'm adding this one to my ever-growing list of fiction to read; this is the only problem with finding an author who we like.


message 6: by Julie (new)

Julie Hmmm. Would I like this one?

I loved this line, by the way: The stories in Bad Behavior often hinge on This Is Your Life moments on the streets of New York--the only city in North America where you can conceivably run into someone you dated or went to college with--


message 7: by Joe (last edited Sep 09, 2018 12:29PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joe Valdez Julie wrote: "Hmmm. Would I like this one?."

That's a great question, Julie. In spite on my rating and mostly excited reaction to the material, I wouldn't tell anyone to drop what they're doing and read this, no. I didn't have the reaction I did to Elizabeth Strout. Thank you for your very kind and supportive comment.


message 8: by Robin (new)

Robin Wow, now look at Mr Eclectic! I’m enjoying your reading selections, Joe. This one impresses me, as I’ve been meaning to read Gaitskill for some time now. She sounds worthy from your excellent review.


message 9: by Joe (last edited Sep 10, 2018 11:28AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joe Valdez Robin wrote: "Wow, now look at Mr Eclectic! I’m enjoying your reading selections, Joe. This one impresses me, as I’ve been meaning to read Gaitskill for some time now. She sounds worthy from your excellent review."

Aw, shucks! This is a high compliment coming from Diversity Girl. I'm far away from signing my checks "Mr Eclectic" but I guess I have been grabbing at things lately. I think you'd be inspired and stimulated by these short stories, Robin. As a writer, I can't say if you write like her, but I do think you speak her language, the same way I don't write like Stephen King but I think I speak his language.


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