Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill - Book Review - Kristopher Cook

Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill

Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill
A collection of nine short stories, each with themes of loneliness, isolation and desperation. All of which peer into the lives of women looking for a connection.
Genre: Contemporary

Ruthless, uncompromising, and at times, brutal to contend with; Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior is a seductive look at unyielding women.

In this collection of nine short stories, each deals with themes of loneliness, isolation and desperation. All of which look into the lives of women looking for connection, sexual excitement, or obsession in various formats.

Honesty and Emotion

What makes these stories great is what Tom Spanbauer would define as ‘Dangerous Writing. The writing of an open-heart, allowing others to peer in and see all that you have; both the good and the terrifying.

Her prose has a sharp edge that presses up against your throat, daring you to read on – which you will. There’s a certain mercilessness that comes with these stories, abandonment of insecurities and depicting women with masochistic tendencies.

Similar to Venus in Furs, the women here are mostly looking for love on different levels. Some out of companionship and loneliness. And others out of the desire to be with another, no matter their marital status.

This also transgresses from affairs with colleagues, prostitution, drug abuse, depression and S&M.

The story I enjoyed most was Something Nice, which follows Fred as he attends a local brothel whilst his wife’s out of town. After being drawn in by a young prostitute known as Lisette, he starts to develop an obsession. He begins lying about his job, telling her he’s a lawyer when in fact he’s a vet. This backfires when she reveals her love of animals.

“He sat down next to her and put his hand on her thigh. She ignored it. He felt as though he was bothering a girl sitting next to him on a bus. His hand sweated on her leg and he took it away. What was wrong? Why wasn’t she pulling her dress off over her head, the way they usually did?”

Mary Gaitskill, Bad Behavior

Wanting to take the relationship further, he begins fantasising about seeing her outside of her workplace.

I recently read Ryū Murikami’s Tokyo Decadence because I thought it’d be both transgressive and shocking, but Bad Behavior has far more raunchy moments, all of which are written with far more heirs and graces of Murakami, and a plot to show for it.

I make this comparison to show how surprised I was at Bad Behavior. When you hear people label novels as scandalous and outrageous, it’s easy to dismiss these claims; especially given the amount of genuinely shocking books I’ve read.

But this book is nothing short of amazing on all these levels. The stories are frank expressions of young women finding their way in the world, all struggling with connection to the outside world.

“I’m only nice to people who are mostly mean to me. Once somebody told me to stay away from so-and-so because he beat up girls. They said he broke his girlfriend’s jaw.” She paused, for emphasis, he supposed. “So I began flirting with him like wild. Isn’t that sick?”

Mary Gaitskill, Bad Behavior

Surprisingly one of the stories is a blueprint for the film Secretary (2002), which was a pleasant surprise. It’s also one of the darker, more perverse stories in the collection.

Closing Thoughts

All of the stories here begin with the notion of being one thing, and then often changing mid-way to pique interest.

Gaitskill’s attention to human detail, combined with her unflinching honesty creates a unique brand of fiction which won’t be forgotten anytime soon. If you enjoyed Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women, then this is an excellent parallel. Just beware; the levels of transgression here are amped up to the max.

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