Katherine's Reviews > Bad Behavior

Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill
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Apr 20, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: newer-fiction
Read in September, 2014

God, how I love the story "Heaven" in Mary Gaitskill's collection Bad Behavior. I re-read it last night, twice, about five years after first discovery. Re-reading some favorite short stories lately, it's been funny to realize the gaps between how I remember them and how they really are. I recalled "Heaven" as a short story that mostly describes a middle-aged mom at a barbecue, sitting in a plastic chair with meat- and food-juices dripping down her face, remembering the lives of her grown-up children, which have in certain ways been disastrous, and yet feeling very powerful and satisfied with herself.

There are a lot of barbecues in "Heaven," and there are plastic chairs and even some dripping juice. And the point-of-view character, Virginia, is a mom, in her fifties, of four grown children. And while I'm not sure if she ever displays the near-psychotic complacency I vaguely remembered from my first reading of the story, she is definitely not the sort of person who is given to neurotic self-doubt, either. Instead, she is a former popular girl who has always been tall and blond and good-looking. She's not a worrywart or someone who especially seems even to analyze situations. In short, she's kind of an unusual POV character for fiction, and I love that.

The story is more complicated than I remembered, too. It goes on for almost 30 pages, the time structure sloshes, and the narration mostly takes the form of snapshots, short chunks of text concerning particular memories that Virginia has of her life with her husband and children. But there's also this plot I'd forgotten, about Virginia's mousy sister Ann, and Ann's troubled teenage daughter.

So, Virginia was a beautiful and popular kid. While she doesn't seem to be especially vain about her own looks anymore (though she once puts on a pretty blouse, she often appears in sweatshirts, lumpy socks, etc), she married a big, handsome, alpha-male husband and had four kids, and she's super-vain about their looks. But calling it vanity seems cheapening, too. Virginia takes a deep and very relatable kind of satisfaction in her kids' beauty and grace, their physical existence in the world. This is a very sensuous story, as Virginia's mode of taking in the world is primarily sensuous and aesthetic: the vividness not just of bodies but of foods, rooms, clothes, natural objects, the everyday items of householding (cups, mugs, the bowl a certain snack was eaten out of), even something like the dirt and dust in the kitchen or the oily pans of water on the counter — is overwhelming. And wonderful. There's something in it very true about the way we remember our lives.

The action of the story rises and falls and rises again. All of the events that are related could easily be fleshed out into a novel, but there's something peculiarly moving about having them so compressed. Virginia's four children grow up, and there are detail-laden memories of each one. Each child becomes a well-drawn character, especially Magdalen, the feisty, beautiful, charismatic, difficult one, who leaves home at 17 and gets wrapped up in the grubby tail end of the '60s/'70s counterculture. But also Camille, Magdalen's high-achieving younger sister, and to a lesser extent, the two boys, one of whom Virginia claims is her favorite. There's also an extended visit from Virginia's teenage niece, who has just gotten out of a mental hospital, and whom her mother Ann says she can't handle anymore. The girl stays for some months; she and Virginia bond tenderly at times, but overall, her visit is a disaster. She gets into drugs, she's depressing, and ultimately she is shipped back unceremoniously to her parents. As a reader, you feel a moral question-mark here, but Virginia and her husband Jarold are unbothered.

The children's young-adult and adult lives bring crises and surprises: each time, Virginia feels confused, like she can scarcely believe what is happening to her beautiful family; sometimes she suffers, and inevitably the crisis passes. The weird, unbeautiful niece haunts the story like a bad dream. Largely I think that she, and her mother, are there as a foil, so you can understand what kind of a woman Virginia is and how she sees herself.

I won't spoil the end for you, except to note that there is a barbecue.

Why do I love this story so much? I love the ambiguous characters. Virginia is strong, satisfied, resilient; she's also prideful, inconsiderate, insulated. She's not one to apologize for herself—with all the good and bad implied by that trait. Characters who seem horrible at first become less so over time; characters you like at first have their horrible sides. This seems like life. I like being inside of Virginia's weird consciousness, and how much feeling the author can wring out of writing about a character who does not in fact feel every little bump in the road. I like how historical forces intrude, in the form of the drug underworld that claims both Magdalen and her cousin for a while, but are not named as such. I love the strong, defiant sense of life. (Even while, of necessity, the sweeping time-scale implies a slide toward death.) I guess that's it. Virginia has her ups and downs, but ultimately, she is a woman who cannot help but savor the world. Maybe my capsule memory of the story wasn't so far off, after all.
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06/05/2016 marked as: read

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