Paul Bryant's Reviews > Bad Behavior

Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

it was ok
bookshelves: short-modern-americans

Mary Gaitskill is a bad writer. This is from page 176:

'Have I upset you?' asked Deana.
'No, no.' Connie looked up. 'I understand what you're saying,
but that wasn't the case with Alice. I never acted vulnerable
around her. And actually I don't really agree with you. I may
have done that to you because I responded to you sexually, but in general, I don't.'
Deana shrugged. 'Well, I only know what I've seen. I'm just
trying to come up with an answer for you because you seem so
distressed.' She stood and collected the dishes. Her fingers and hands, Constance thought, had an exposed, strangely cold and receptive quality, like the nose of a puppy. As she was watching her clear the table and take the dishes to the kitchen, she could see the many aspects of her lover come forward and shyly recede with each movement; her rigid, stubborn arms, her strong shoulders positioned in a soft, demure curve, her stern chin, her luminous forehead, her odd way of stiffly holding back and gently, curiously moving forward - all spoke of her radial gradations of tenderness, sorrow and radiant, fanlike intelligence.


It's awful. How do fingers and hands have an exposed, strangely cold and receptive quality? Or should that be plural? Is a puppy's nose receptive? Why are the arms stubborn? How can they be rigid if they're gathering dishes? "her strong shoulders positioned in a soft, demure curve" - it's so cack-handed and awkward. How do you hold back and move forward at the same time? Wouldn't you topple over forwards? Not so demure then, I think. And "radial gradations of tenderness" - could be talking about the fine qualities of a steak just purchased from the butcher. Or anything else. Enough. I thought MG's stories were going to be clever salacious fun but they're so blah - er, what's the posh word - affectless. If this book was a record it would be one of those Lou Reed albums he made in the 1980s which no one, not even his fans, listen to any more.
27 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Bad Behavior.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

September 30, 2007 – Shelved
Started Reading
December 1, 2007 – Finished Reading
June 14, 2013 – Shelved as: short-modern-americans

Comments Showing 1-28 of 28 (28 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Don't know if your review made me want to read the book, but it made me wish I hadn't tossed my Tom Lehrer LPs in the Great House Move.


message 2: by Charissa (new)

Charissa ah Tom Lehrer... makes me want to rattle my castanets.

Jessica Hey, I like Mary Gaitskill. But I totally know what you mean.... interesting to see Paul possessed by the spirit of B. R. Myers here! This description of the hands and the dog nose worked for me, actually, but again, I know what you mean. A lot of MG's descriptions leave me like, "wha-?" Plus she is always having people eat salads that are made up of "pale leaves," which is the kind of tic short story writers need to watch out for.

But for me the point of these stories is that they are affectless. They are kind of supposed to be like those bad Lou Reed albums. I wonder if part of the problem here is the overly exciting cover on your edition, versus the dull, washed-out one I had showing a woman apparently trying to do some kind of lame calisthenics. As I saw it, these stories aren't supposed to be salacious, they're supposed to be about dull, stupid, colorless people who can't relate to each other at all or even begin figuring out how to live genuine or satisfying lives. They are so out of it that most of the time they can't even see how hopeless and unappealing they are. They don't have any real feelings even, just these flat, dull, oddly worded thoughts and sort of fetal-level emotions.

I thought this book was pretty good. It's not great or anything, but I did give it to a friend for her birthday because it has a certain undeniable (and unfortunate) relevance for women in their twenties who live in New York.

Jessica P.S. That might not be an accurate description of what this book is like. I don't have it with me so I can't refresh my memory, but that's how I remember it.

Paul Bryant It says here (

" In 1988, when her short-story collection Bad Behavior came out, it became a dorm-room bible for women I knew: Finally, here was a fiction writer unafraid to walk straight through the feminist battlefields of that very strange period, when debates over “victimology” and date rape dominated the landscape. Her characters were stunted, smart, mean boys and the women they toyed with, as in “A Romantic Weekend,” in which an intellectual masochist has a disastrous assignation with a sociopath who has a very different idea of what constitutes kinkiness. In “Secretary” (the original source for the 2002 movie starring Maggie Gyllenhaal), a temp gets spanked by her boss, quits, and accepts a guilty payoff. Among writers who dealt with similar topics—and the shelves were full of them in those years, from Dennis Cooper’s nihilistic fantasies to Susie Bright’s chipper sex ed—Gaitskill was something special. She didn’t grandstand; she lacked self-pity. She had an intuitive sympathy for people acting on their worst impulses and a gift for portraying cruelty without condemnation. She managed to be an erotic writer without being, precisely, a sex writer. "

Maybe you had to be there.

Jessica I would say that the absolute opposite, that she is a sex writer who is completely unerotic. I didn't even really feel like this book was about sex, even though it was obviously really about sex.

I'm aware of Gaitskill's reputation, but apparently I had a different response to this than the ladies who read it in the eighties. To me the characters seemed awful and vapid, and my reading experience was masochistic where I could identify with them, but also kind of of sadistic because I felt disgust for them and sort of wanted them to suffer. Hm, I don't know. I like Mary Gaitskill, but maybe I'm reading her wrong.

Paul Bryant The thing is, I love short stories except that you have to trawl through a lot to find the gems. Even in fat anthologies called "We Trawled Through So Much Shit To Find These" I still only find five out of forty. But I wouldn't want to be without the five. Just call me Mr Hard To Please.

Jessica I think you should bump Lorrie Moore's Birds of America higher up your "to-read" list. I'm overdue for a reread myself, but she's one of my favorites, and I'm anxious to see if you like that.

message 9: by Ruth (new)

Ruth What Jessica said.


Timothy Willis  Sanders Can't you rip a paragraph from any 20th century writer and take a giant crap on it, and say this crap-covered paragraph represents the author's entire output?

I'm a man completely unacquainted with the historical context of the book. I didn't read it as some kind of feminist text. You can bag on her word choice, but I don't know how tethering it to a media driven women's micro-movement is somehow further evidence of its failure.

I found some of the stories deeply affecting, others not so much. I suspect her celebrity is more annoying than her sometimes overwrought descriptions.

Whatevs, I just want to stick up for her here because no one else is. Thanks for reading.

message 11: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant Hi Timothy - there's nothing in my review about feminism, I would not wish to comment about precisely how she could be seen as feminist. As for your question "Can't you rip a paragraph from any 20th century writer and take a giant crap on it, and say this crap-covered paragraph represents the author's entire output?" I think you'd be hard pressed to find such bad writing in any other noted 20th century writer, with the exception of Alice Sebold if this review is anything to go by

I picked my quoted Mary Gaitskill paragraph out at random, I'll pick another one if you would like.

message 12: by Alan (new)

Alan how come when I find a book via GR reviews that seems just right for me and i add it to my to read list, immediately after I find a shot-down-in-flames one from Paul?
well it's only happened twice, but I'm sure it's the beginning of a trend.

message 13: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant Long may it continue - think of the time I'm saving you!

message 14: by Alan (new)

Alan Paul wrote: "Long may it continue - think of the time I'm saving you!"

Yes you might be, and thanks, but maybe your bar is higher than mine when it comes to short stories - I usually find 30 out of forty in a 'We Trawled Through Shit..' anthology that I like. Maybe because I am a short story writer, and I try to get on the writer's wavelength, knowing I wouldn't want to be one of the 35 you'd dismiss, but I might well have been (although i haven't been in an anthology since 2005).

I do think you've done a job here though, the writing you hightlight (at random) is bad. I somehow see the cold receptive quality - puppy's noses are cold and receptive, to smells anyway, but the analogy is very strained.

message 15: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant May I immodestly direct you to my reviews of "The Story behind the Story" and "You've Got to Read This", two collections... ? We could continue a discussion there.

message 16: by Alan (new)

Alan I will have a look, but I am at work and may not get a chance to have a full blown discussion - although if the desk is quiet for the next two hours I might...

David Disagreeing with Paul is something I rarely do, but in this particular case I feel obliged to register my dissent.

message 18: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant Dissent acknowledged. You know, I'm not right all the time, I just think I am. No, then again... when you look at it dispassionately... I am.

Bobby Bermea Fascinating. I read this book as a freshman in college and loved it. I still think she's a wonderful writer. Even looking at the paragraph you chose, the images work for me. I feel like I know exactly what she's talking about. For instance, when she's describing each separate aspect of her lover as it comes to her attention, I had no problem with the contradictions. I see them all the time in people. I find this book amazingly honest and feral. Generally, it's looking at the dark side of the people therein, no question about that, and that makes the characters hard to be around. I get that. But I've seen these things. Lived some of them. I'm not trying to convince you of anything. What you found cack-handed and awkward, I found precise and razor sharp, the total being greater than the sum of the parts.

message 20: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant Thanks for that - I think I'm an a bit of a minority here!

Bobby Bermea I have those. I think Moby Dick sucks.

message 22: by Remittance (new)

Remittance Girl I'm afraid I have to disagree. Although I didn't enjoy the book, I can't fault the actual writing skill. She's using language to set up dichotomies of perception, not writing a car chase.

message 23: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant I admit I'm in a minority, lots of people think she's the bee's knees. I did try her again, and was inspired to write a parody (!) - you may find this amusing

(or offensive of course, in which case, apologies)

message 24: by Remittance (new)

Remittance Girl Paul wrote: "I admit I'm in a minority, lots of people think she's the bee's knees. I did try her again, and was inspired to write a parody (!) - you may find this amusing"

It's phenomenal. I laughed all the way through it.

message 25: by Lulufrances (new)

Lulufrances Whew. So many many many words in that passage alone. Don‘t know if i could deal with an entire book. Since this is her debut i was wondering: is her follow up stuff better?

message 26: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant I do confess I haven't been rushing to find out! But heck, she has lots of fans. For another weirdo contemporary writer who I really enjoy, I suggest Alissa Nutting.

message 27: by Tony (new)

Tony Let me add and Amen to your suggestion of Alissa Nutting.

message 28: by Paul (last edited Nov 26, 2018 01:08PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant the one I really liked was Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls.

back to top