Friday, February 22, 2013

Review: Bad Behavior

Bad Behavior
Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I bought this collection of short stories for the exploration of sex and relationships that it promised (the back cover copy claims its territory "is the bedrooms of the urban fringe, where tenderness melds with cruelty and pornography with romance"). However, its treatment of non-sexual relationships between women turned out to be what grabbed me the most.

My initial expectation was certainly justified. The book turns out to contain "Secretary," the story on which the Maggie Gyllenhaal movie is (quite loosely) based. It also includes call girls, masochists, people in adulterous affairs, and so on. None of this is nearly as racy as it sounds. Gaitskill's language is precise and quite cold. I frequently found myself wondering how a given two characters could bear talking to each other for five minutes, let alone long enough to imagine they wanted to have some sort of relationship with each other. I nearly put the book down because its treatment of everything seemed so distant and no one seemed to like anyone else much at all.

However, little glimpses of something kept me going. "Trying to Be" which occurs fairly late in the book, contained the coldness and dissociation I described, and yet it moved me. A bit of language at the end of Secretary clicked for me as an explanation of Gaitskill's voice:

For some reason, I remembered the time, a few years before, when my mother had taken me to see a psychiatrist. One of the more obvious questions he had asked me was, "Debby, do you ever have the sensation of being outside yourself, almost as if you can actually watch yourself from another place?" I hadn't at the time, but I did now. And it wasn't such a bad feeling at all.

Even with that realization, however, I might have finished the book but not liked it. What redeemed the book for me was the way Gaitskill writes about friendships and other relationships between women. When I reviewed the stories that stood out for me, most of them had this theme, particularly "Connection," "Other Factors," and "Heaven," which are all clustered together at the end. Here the sense of dissociation and coldness worked much better for me because I also could detect genuine feeling between the characters. "Heaven" was a deep and moving story, very full and complicated. It concerns lots of relationships, but for me its emotional center lay in the connection between a woman and her niece.

Bad Behavior is a difficult book. I've seen it described as "utterly unsentimental," and I found this to be accurate. It makes for an unpleasant read at times. When the author presents characters at arm's length, it's hard for me to immerse myself in the world and care what happens to them. However, something crept up on me as I read. I'm not sure if the end of the book was better or if, by reading through the beginning, I began to connect better with Gaitskill's style. At any rate, for the last four or five stories I felt the depth and emotion I'd been missing through the first half of the book.

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