Sunday, January 15, 2012

Bad Behavior (1988)

Mary Gaitskill's first collection of stories remains daring and remarkable to this day, I think, assiduously working further edges of conventional propriety with dedication and nerve. It's arguable enough that these stories are sensational simply for the sake of winning attention, but I think there's more to them. They are populated and overpopulated with prostitutes, practicing sadomasochists, and fucked-up Americans of many stripes, usually urban creatures operating out of New York or various points elsewhere, such as San Francisco and Michigan. Young women turn to prostitution to make ends meet. Grown adults in marriages carry on empty affairs, or indulge mockable perversions. People in these stories keep trying to connect but are thwarted by the static noise of sex and all its confusions, most often the confusion with love. One of the best stories here, "Something Nice," tells about a john who fancies himself apart and above the exploitation in which he regularly indulges, and falls in love with a prostitute. Later, after she has left the trade and he sees her in public with a boyfriend, she pretends not to know him. He is devastatingly humiliated. Perhaps the most famous story here, "Secretary"—because it was made into a decidedly minor indie movie in the '90s—is also one of the most puzzling and least effective, relying heavily on a tendency to reduce characters and situations to ciphers that don't compute; it appears to be trying to work as some kind of representational allegory. At those times it feels like Gaitskill is attempting to have her cake and eat it too, so to speak—attempting to extract the pathos she knows well in these empty middle-class lives even as she ruthlessly, casually, and heartlessly makes fun of them And Everything They Stand For. Better when she just goes right at the poignant details and lets the stories sort themselves out, as in the long hodgepodge of the last story, "Heroes," with all the siblings of two generations coming and going and some characters that seem flatly unbelievable, until the totality of the events recounted mounts to an impressive presence, and one finds oneself half in love with a few of them, and feeling as though one knows them all very well and cares what happens to them. It's no wonder that this was taken as an auspicious first book—it is.

In case it's not at the library.

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