Saturday, November 21, 2015

Bad Behavior

As promised, I read Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill. It consists of nine short stories, many of which deal with dark behaviors that don't ordinarily find their way into literary fiction. I thought I was going to finish it but gave up on the last story, which failed to capture my interest and featured multiple family members over a long period of time, making it seem too condensed to work as a short story. I read a used copy in which a previous owner had folded the top corner of the page at the end of each of the first two stories and none thereafter, perhaps signifying that they had stopped there. What stands out about the book is its honest look at prostitution and sadomasochism, and it also covers the New York writing scene from the point of view of people who are trying to succeed in it as of the 1980's.

Gaitskill's writing style is less affected than that of many of her peers and often reads like straight journalism, but with close-up looks at individuals who speak in their own voices as they go about their daily lives. For someone like me, who has never been promiscuous, solicited a prostitute or had a sadomasochistic thought in his head, the book is somewhat of a revelation. The drug abusers bear no relationship to my own use of psychedelics in my hippie days: they anesthetize themselves with heavy drugs that I never took. The impression I get is that Gaitskill is intent on emotional precision, especially regarding women, and that she likes to humanize characters who are typically discarded by society and never thought worthy of discussion.

Although much of the writing seems a little flat and factual to me, Gaitskill is good at description, and occasionally she inserts short flourishes that few writers could match:
Connie drew up her legs and sat with her arms around both knees and looked out the window again. It was true that in the summer the air shaft had an oddly poetic aspect. On days when the apartment air was as heavy and stifling as a swamp, noises and smells came floating up it on clouds of heat, lyrical blends of voice and radio scraps, drifting arguments and amorous sighs, the fried shadow of someone's dinner, a faded microcosm that lilted into their apartment and related them to everyone else in the building.
I gather that Gaitskill is considered an expert writer on female emotions, both positive and negative, but to me this volume seems like reportage; just as we never hear much about prostitution or sadomasochism, we never hear much about female emotions, but they are all there for anyone to see, and it could be argued that Gaitskill has found a fishing hole that has mostly been avoided by other writers of her generation.

Since this is my personal blog, I reserve the right to make simplistic, unsupported assertions from time to time (subject to your rebuttal, of course). If I were to sum up Bad Behavior, I would say that it is carefully written and strives for authenticity, which means that it is honest and accurate, without much emotional wavering and no moral judgment. Compared to her female peers, I think Mary Gaitskill stands up well. That would include Francine Prose, Mona Simpson, Cathleen Schine, Anne Beattie, A.M. Homes, Maxine Chernoff (I confess to having read one book of each), and Lorrie Moore. Although I no longer read Lorrie Moore, she seems comparatively remote and disengaged, as if she were writing from the point of view of an insular girl who has never left home but has heard bad reports from the outside; I think contrivance has been seeping into her work for years, and I'm not even convinced that she still likes to write. But if Moore has had too little experience, perhaps Gaitskill has had too much.

Mary Gaitskill probably deserves more to be read than the other writers I've mentioned, but that isn't saying a lot. I am not familiar with all of the details of her life, but apparently she ran away from home at the age of 15 and later on became a prostitute. She knows whereof she speaks. I don't have any evidence, but I wouldn't be surprised if the story "Secretary" stems from some kind of sexual abuse that she experienced during her childhood. In trying to think of someone similar to Gaitskill, Vivian Maier comes to mind. Though Maier was far more of an outsider and an eccentric than Gaitskill ever was, I get some of the same feelings from her work, and she apparently had a tendency to be cruel. Gaitskill is not on the "A" list of female literary authors, probably because she doesn't play well into the feminist propaganda of her generation or the sheltered political correctness of the current MFA environment. I don't feel compelled to read any more of her work, which is not to say that you shouldn't read her yourself, particularly if you have an interest in contemporary American fiction. I hardly bother at all with it now, though I liked The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, who is currently quite antique at 82.

2 comments:

  1. Well, not having read her work myself, I can't really say much about it, I guess.

    John

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    1. If you like Ribeyro I doubt you'd like Gaitskill. The one thing that stands out to me about "Bad Behavior" is the frank, firsthand account of prostitution from the point of view of an intelligent, well-educated woman. It's a little uncanny getting inside her head. Most readers would find it disturbing. Her current novel, "The Mare" is probably tamer.

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