A co-worker saw me reading Bad Behavior during my downtime at work, and asked what it was like. My response to that question is still the most apt summation of this book that I can think of: delightfully fucked up. I found Gaitskill by way of Mr. Beattie‘s series of posts on short fiction last summer. I don’t remember a thing about what he wrote, or even what story it was (something out of Because They Wanted To maybe), but I do remember being intrigued. And when I found out that Gaitskill had written the short story that was the basis for Secretary, one of my favourite films, that clinched things for me. I’m now the proud owner three Gaitskill books, and I chose this one to start with because it has “Secretary” in it. I’ve since come across this interview from The Believer in which Sheila Heti (one of my favourite Canadian authors, but now most often found in the quasi-journalist role of snark-free interviewer for The Believer) asks some excellent questions, but reveals that she rather spectacularly misunderstood the film adaptation. Heti claims that, thanks to Steven Shainberg’s remarkably sweet and sexy film, “[Gaitskill’s] name now conjures up images of degrading, sexy sadomasochism and female weakness.” Female weakness? Degradation? Really? Was the normally eagle-eyed, sharp-witted Heti completely fucking high when she screened the film? That comment is nothing but surface. The film adaptation (which has little in common with the story on which it’s based) is about discovering the tenderness, connectedness and freedom in the extremes of human behaviour. It’s also about self-knowledge and self-determination, but those are the kinds of things that can be easy to ignore if all you’re interested in is trying to find something bad to say about Maggie Gyllenhaal on all fours with a saddle on her back and a carrot in her mouth. But to be honest I’ve been less and less impressed with Ms. Heti since, in a December 2007 Believer interview with Dave Hickey, she commented that “it seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story.” What a ringing endorsement of fiction from one of our nation’s most praised young authors.
So: delightfully fucked up. Each of these stories explores an unconventional, dysfunctional relationship, usually where at least one of the people involved is completely unaware of the dysfunction. There’s a lot in these stories that could be called shocking as well, and was probably included for that reason (though not, I think, for the sensational sort of shocking they might appear to be on the surface). There’s a lot of unorthodox sex in the book (sadomasochism, bondage, dominance, prostitution, humiliation—the one lesbian relationship in the collection is likely the healthiest, but is placed, it seems to me, on par with the other sexual practices I’ve mentioned as a kind of shock to the reader’s notions of normality, the fact of the homosexual relationship being less dysfunctional than all the others I mean. The strategy was probably pretty effective in the 1980s, given how the media of the time handled issues of homosexuality, but it seems like just another relationship, reading it today). Bad Behavior is, in any event, an apt title for the book, since nearly every one of Gaitskill’s characters is a horrible, horrible person in one way or another. Normally this is the point at which I’d say that it makes them all the more achingly human, or something along those lines, but frankly I’m rather sick of the idea that giving reign to our basest impulses is somehow the most honest expression of our humanity. It might be because (being a dozen reviews behind) I’m on to Robertson Davies’ more morally optimistic work, and it might be because the fact that my last girlfriend left me after almost three years of intense, on-again/off-again romance so she could fuck a doctor for his money has left me more than a little tired of justifications. So if all this horribleness doesn’t make them all the more real or whatever, what does it make them? Really interesting to read about, even when they’re doing not much of anything at all. (“Heaven” is the most likely candidate for a story in which the characters do not much of anything, and it’s also the most straightforward and traditional, presenting a pretty clear contrast between middle class expectations and real-world outcomes.)
To be clear, I’m not accusing Gaitskill of cheap theatrics or moral sloppiness. The stories in Bad Behavior display nothing of the sort. She’s quite clearly not only a keen observer of human behaviour, she’s also a keen reporter of it. (Only a handful of clichés were harmed in the writing of this review, but nobody liked them anyway.) Gaitskill’s stories are sharp, direct, disturbingly sexy, and show an interest in ambiguity and inquiry rather than proscription or justification. The bottom line is that I enjoyed the book, but it was so intense that I’m going to have to ration the others. I don’t know that I could cope with reading them all in a row.
Next up is Thought You Were Dead, by Terry Griggs.