Bad Behavior: Stories

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Mary Gaitskill and the Dignity of the Nowhere Girl

In Mary Gaitskill’s essay, “Leave the Woman Alone!”, one of a bracing, terrific new collection called Somebody with a Little Hammer, Gaitskill takes a look at the media reaction to some recent sex scandals involving politicians. She’s irritated that the wife of the philanderer is presumed to be humiliated; she wonders if those defending the betrayed woman are so enthusiastic because they are secretly gloating; she observes how the mistress gets something of a free pass; and she questions why the cheating men are attacked so viciously, when no one really knows their motives. Gaitskill is particularly perplexed over how, when Elizabeth Edwards continued to support her husband, John Edwards, after his affair was exposed, Edwards herself was berated, perhaps because she refused to let her marriage be defined by others, and instead defined it for herself. Watching these scandals unfold, Gaitskill, ever fascinated with public shamings, asks, “What is going on here?” It’s a typical Gaitskill set-up. In these brilliant essays, which stretch back to the early 1990s and run up to the last few years, Gaitskill explores emotionally charged situations, catalogues conventional responses to them, then reveals their hidden, psychological underpinnings. Her explorations are incisive and unpredictable -- she sticks up for Axl Rose, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Céline Dion, and Linda Lovelace, to name a few of the unexpected; she even sticks up for the philandering politicians mentioned above. The last thing you want to do with any topic is say, “I know just what Mary Gaitskill will think of this.” In a 2015 article, The New Yorker described Gaitskill by reputation as a “writer not only immune to sentiment but actively engaged in deep, witchy communion with the perverse.” Gaitskill’s oeuvre, from her debut 1988 short story collection, Bad Behavior, through her much-fêted, National Book Award-nominated Veronica, is known for its kinky, heartless, transgressive sexual encounters. She regularly discusses rape. As Gaitskill writes about herself, “In case you don’t know, I’m supposedly sick and dark.” It’s volatile stuff for sure, and Gaitskill’s work is a ready bullet point for anyone ready to politicize sex. An example of the heated talk about Gaitskill came in an essay that appeared in The Rumpus in 2013. Author Suzanne Rivecca began her piece: “I hate it when men talk about Mary Gaitskill. I call for a permanent moratorium on men gassily discoursing on Mary Gaitskill.” Rivecca goes on to explain how Gaitskill is grossly misunderstood by men, in particular when it comes to feminism. “When men read Mary Gaitskill, their boners deflate. They feel squeamish and violated and desperate to reimpose a semblance of order and moral authority on their ransacked worlds.” I must say that as a man, my (literary) boner does not at all deflate when reading Gaitskill. But I should be careful here. As Rivecca says, “Even the nice things men say about Gaitskill are annoying.” The Rumpus piece was so strident that Gaitskill herself wrote a public letter to say that, while flattered by the author’s defense of her work, not all men are out to misinterpret her. For me, the sex in Gaitskill’s work would be prurient if Gaitskill didn’t have such sensitive emotional antennae. I think a lot of the reason Gaitskill writes about sex is for the illusions, lies, power, aggression, and animal instinct it lays bare. For her, it’s a loaded nesting doll of psychological truths. In my reading, much of what drives Gaitskill is shining a light. She is constantly lasering in on the gap between what is on the surface versus the emotional reality below. She praises the “numinous unconscious” in Charles Dickens, and his “secret life which glimmers in the margins.” She likes artists who “illuminate dark corners,” or who try to “tear things up in order to find what is real.” For Gaitskill, to contemplate darkness is a step toward health. As she writes, “The truth may hurt, but in art, anyway, it also helps, sometimes profoundly.” In her essay “The Trouble with Following the Rules: On ‘Date Rape,’ ‘Victim Culture’ and Personal Responsibility,” Gaitskill discusses the nomenclature of inner pain, in particular people who inflate it with loaded terms, for example, calling one’s childhood a “Holocaust.” 'Holocaust' may be a grossly inappropriate exaggeration. But to speak in exaggerated metaphors about psychic injury is not so much the act of a crybaby as it is a distorted desire to make one’s experience have consequence in the eyes of others, and such desperation comes from a crushing doubt that one’s own experience counts at all or is even real.” (Italics Gaitskill’s). Here, as elsewhere in Gaitskill, is the recognition of unspoken, deeply damaged interiors. I believe this is one of the reasons Gaitskill inspires such deep allegiance in her readers -- those who are wounded know that Gaitskill would see them as they truly are, and would not flinch. The emotional centerpiece of this collection, "Lost Cat: A Memoir," is as fine a personal essay as you will find anywhere. It’s ostensibly about Gaitskill’s desperation over a pet cat who goes missing. Gaitskill uses the cat story as an entry point to talk about two other central sources of grief in her life: her relationship with her remote father and her experience taking into her home an inner-city boy named Caesar via The Fresh Air Fund. (This latter relationship became the source material for her recent novel The Mare.) Gaitskill ends up deeply involved with the troubled Caesar, while often failing to help him. At one point she tells Caesar she loves him because, “You are not someone who just wants to hear nice bullshit. You care. You want to know what’s real.”  This, by the way, in Gaitskill-world, is as high a compliment as can be paid. But back to the cat. Gaitskill originally found the cat in Italy, where it was homeless and blind in one eye. She describes the first encounter: But a third kitten, smaller and bonier than the other two, tottered up to me, mewing weakly, his eyes almost glued shut...His big-nosed head was goblinish on his emaciated potbellied body, his long legs almost grotesque. His asshole seemed disproportionally big on his starved rear. Gaitskill, needless to say, finds this cat irresistible. She later describes him affectionately as looking like “a little gangster in a zoot suit.”  It’s a pattern you see again and again, Gaitskill saying to an outcast, though no one else will say so, you have worth in my eyes. In an essay about the movie version of Gaitskill’s story “The Secretary,” Gaitskill describes the story’s origin. She had read a magazine article about a girl who was videotaped being spanked by her boss while she stood in a corner and repeated, “I am stupid.” When they were discovered, the boss apologized and paid the secretary $200. On reading it, I laughed, then shook my head in dismay, then thought, What a great story -- funny, horrible, poignant, and gross, the misery of it as deep as the eroticism; the misery, in fact, giving the eroticism its most pungent force. The wank-book aspect was clearly indispensable, but what interested me most was, Who is this girl? The Hopeful Innocent in the porn story, the cipher in the news story -- what would she be like in real life? Another piece discusses a favorite old song of Gaitskill’s called “Nowhere Girl.” When Gaitskill first heard it in the early 1980s, the song “lightly touched me with an indefinable feeling that was intense almost because it was so light.” The song was “trying to get your attention, though unconfidently, from somewhere off in a corner. Or from nowhere.”  In the book’s title essay, about teaching Anton Chekhov, Gaitskill works in a passage about telling a ragged, obscenity-hurling woman on the street, who might have robbed her, “You are so beautiful.” In all these cases, Gaitskill comes alive when turning toward what others shun. After "Lost Cat," the other high point in the collection is Gaitskill’s essay on Linda Lovelace, “Icon.” Lovelace, for those who don’t know, experienced a meteoric ascendancy to fame following her starring role in the 1972 porn flick Deep Throat, about a woman whose clitoris is in her throat, and thus achieves orgasm by giving blow jobs. The essay discusses a smattering of documentaries and biographies about Lovelace, including an incident where she had sex with a dog. The topic has everything Gaitskill gravitates toward: it’s provocative, it’s obscene, it’s about a woman on the fringes of acceptability, who is alternately shamed and lauded. Lovelace is also a psychological puzzle, inconsistent about whether she herself believes she is a victim. Gaitskill is in fact so taken by Lovelace, her terminology turns religious: “A compelling, even profound figure, a lost soul, and a powerful icon.” “It’s impossible to dismiss the appealing, even delightful way [Lovelace] looks in Deep Throat, or her otherworldly radiance in subsequence press conferences.” In a superb Gaitskillian flourish, she then compares Lovelace’s ordeal to that of Joan of Arc in the famous Carl Dreyer film The Passion of Joan of Arc. Gaitskill admits the comparison is a stretch, but still she writes, “Both women were torn apart by that which they embodied, yet for a moment glowed with enormous symbolic power.” What greater dignity can Gaitskill confer upon Lovelace than to compare her to one of the most famous women to ever live, an icon of religious purity? To dignify something -- to say that it is worthy of our respect and attention -- is not the same as to redeem it, or forgive it, in the same way that exposing a wound is not the same as treating it. But exposing it is the physician’s first step, and Gaitskill’s. Back in 1990, she told an interviewer for BOMB magazine, “Before you can heal pain, you have to acknowledge it and feel it.”

“How do I know it’s real?”

Twenty-five years ago this month, Mary Gaitskill published Bad Behavior, a story collection so accomplished that even Michiko Kakutani thought the book had “radar-perfect detail.” Now, to commemorate the anniversary, The Slant interviews Gaitskill, who discusses her debut and the effect of porn on our culture. (In case you didn’t know, a story in Bad Behavior inspired the movie Secretary.)

Writing the City

I arrived in New York in 1979, without a literary blueprint. I was a Southern boy, from rural Middle Tennessee (okay, by way of Princeton, I admit). My favorite writers at that time were Dostoevsky and Harry Crews. I didn’t know that a contemporary urban fiction existed. I saw New York at first through my own eyes. It was like Columbus “discovering” America: New York City was a wealth of material, ripe to be exploited, and as far as I knew, nobody else ever had. Unemployed and impecunious, I spent a lot of time sitting around Washington Square Park, observing people and events which became fodder for my first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble. My agent, devotedly but quixotically, was determined to get an excerpt into the New Yorker, although, as one of my friends explained, the New Yorker publishes stories about people who live around the edges of Washington Square. To wit, Henry James, whose Washington Square is one of his least difficult works; here James is still operating in the nineteenth century and still writes like Trollope, though with a keener, doubled edge. Aside from the very Jamesian story line, there was something exhilarating in reading about Manhattan still mostly empty, but for wildlife and domestic cattle: “the small but promising capital which clustered about the Battery and overlooked the Bay, and of which the uppermost boundary was indicated by the grassy waysides of Canal Street.” A hundred years later when I showed up, Bernard Goetz was shopping for electronics parts on “the grassy waysides of Canal Street,” Manhattan was full up to the neck (not counting the wide swaths of real estate vacated by insurance arson), and dangerous in a way Henry James could not have imagined in the 1880s, when Second Avenue was still the frontier. Threat was the pulse of the whole city; some neighborhoods were safer than others, but nowhere was altogether safe, and I was young and testosterone-poisoned enough in those days to find the situation more exciting than not. They say fiction requires conflict; well, when New York was a war of all against all, you had all the conflict you could handle any time you put your feet on the street. I was going to write street life, not that that was the only possibility. I wasn’t so interested in “uptown” writers, heirs to James like Louis Auchincloss (admirable as his opus is, and I have since enjoyed it). Thomas Caplan would prove, in Parallelogram, that you could write about New York's patrician class and the city’s Morlocks in the same book, but that was later, and anyway I was specifically not looking for New York writer influences; I wanted to preserve my illusion that the thing would not be done until I did it. In 1979, I moved over the bridge to the Williamsburg waterfront, a good 25 years before gentrification. The pedestrian walkway had not been caged in, and anyone foolhardy enough to go up there had it entirely to himself, with its astonishing vistas of Manhattan. I worked those views into so many books a friend told me, “that bridge is your white whale.”  In my bed (a foam mat on the floor, that was) I had Cormac McCarthy’s early novel Suttree, set not in New York but in Knoxville, and yet it was the most rich and vivid urban novel I had ever read (over and over for over a year). I cannibalized its style and attitude for my own second novel of the New York understrata, Waiting for the End of the World. By then I felt like I had got out from under the anxiety of influence problem and was secure enough in my own writing that I could afford to look around and see what other people were doing and had done. The vogue at the time was for super-skinny minimalist fiction, heavily influenced by what was later discovered to be a full-on collaboration between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. I tried to care about Carver but couldn’t, just as I tried to like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (enthusiastically wished on me by my excellent writing students at the 92nd Street Y), but really I was more interested in people who mugged the people coming out of the Odeon, and somehow I wanted to read something with more depth and dimension, with red meat on the bone. Then, Shazam, there was Mary Gaitskill and her first collection Bad Behavior. These stories were everything the other stuff wasn’t; a mirror of life (for people like me even) in New York in the eighties that captured and reflected everything, with a marvelous, sculptural realism, down to the gum wrapper stuck in a crack on the sidewalk. Gaitskill is a writer to stay with; her masterpiece novel Veronica is much more deeply internalized than those early stories, and still it gives you glimpses of New York City you won’t find anywhere else. But who was doing the real nitty-gritty? I was beginning to wonder. Hugh Selby for one. Just last week I took Last Exit to Brooklyn on a ride to Fort Greene; the book’s as startling and horrifying as I remembered it, and the writing more sophisticated and just plain better than I remembered it, though at the end of the day the Freudian mechanism driving all that sheer brutality strikes me as a little too much... I like better a couple of other books from the boroughs: Bloodbrothers by the pre-Clockers Richard Price, a novel mostly set in the Bronx, but including some dizzying tours of the Manhattan I was exploring around the same time. This novel reaches the same scary heights of violence as Selby’s, but Price really loves his characters, and his story evokes a sympathetic compassion for them, in the place of Selby’s disgust. Down in Brooklyn, I discovered Jay Neugeboren in the Williamsburg branch of the Public Library, a curious oasis in what was then a very broad desert of urban blight — and a good shelf’s worth too, Neugeboren being perceived as a local boy. From these books, and especially Sam’s Legacy, I began to learn what kind of civilization had once existed in territory which now looked to me like something out of Mad Max. Sam’s Legacy gives you the old Brooklyn neighborhoods as they begin to crumble, and also this extraordinary lagniappe: an embedded novel with a completely different voice, called My Life and Death in the Negro Baseball League: A Slave Narrative. Robert Stone, a New Yorker born and bred, writes about New York very obliquely (as he wrote about the Vietnam War so elliptically in the classic Dog Soldiers). One doesn’t necessarily think of his solo-sailing extravaganza, Outerbridge Reach, as a New York City novel, and yet the city is vividly present in more than half of the scenes, in most of its variations and many of its different social strata — from the toniest suburbs to the price of a parking place in Manhattan. The book probes the city, embraces it, and surrounds it all at the same time; one of the most memorable bits involves a microcosmic circumnavigation, when the hero Browne sails his catamaran down the Arthur Kill by night, exploring one of the city’s cloaca: ...the hulks lay scattered in a geometry of shadows. The busy sheer and curve of their shapes and the perfect stillness of the water made them appear held fast in some phantom disaster. Across the Kill, bulbous storage tanks, generators and floodlit power lines stretched to the end of darkness. The richness of this place, and its myriad stories! In the end, one can’t just take them from the city on the cheap. Outerbridge Reach contains another home truth for all writers (though Stone slips it into a filmmaker’s offhand remark). “She told me her stories,” Strickland said. “I had to trade for them with mine.” Image source: NYC - First Ave & 83, 1983

A Year in Reading: Rachel Syme

"We were talking about The Bell Jar, because we were sixteen, and we wanted to be depressed in New York." – Deborah Willis, Vanishing I tend to like and lean towards creative things made by womenfolk—perhaps it has to do with being handed a Cibo Matto mixtape at a crucial point of adolescence or deciding to major in post-1945 yonic-ceramic-art-history in college (yes! I really did this!); yellow-wallpapered observations are always my default reads. But this year, I found myself reading almost exclusively female writers--and more specifically, their collections of short stories. As Lorrie Moore puts it (best, always best), I have entered "that awful stage of life between twenty-six to and thirty-seven known as stupidity," and the best way I've found to navigate—or at least subsist within—it are these compact little morsels of ladywriting, with beginnings, middles, and ends. I blame the Internet and Saturn's return. My favorite discovery this year was Canadian bookseller Deborah Willis, whose debut collection Vanishing and Other Stories really floored me. Willis has this airy, almost giggly writing voice that sounds like a Valley Girl gifted with an Oxford education (example: "What I did understand, later but still way before Claudia did, was that it was impossible. That we could never break free. No matter what we did, we could never separate them from us. Our bodies were built by the lentils and flax they’d fed us. Their bone structure lingered in our faces.") The title story in her collection is told by a woman whose neurotic author father mysteriously left his attic office one day and just never returned—the narrator is still stunned by it after so many years, this spectral longing, this losing a person due to the fact that they simply do not wish to be found. If you have time to read one more short story this year, consider making that one it. Willis' work reminded me a bit, but not too much, of Aimee Bender's wonderful, casual magical realism, which I am (utterly, blushingly) ashamed to say was a 2010 revelation. Her latest novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake--about people who eat their feelings in every literal way--was one of my favorite long reads this year, but I found myself gravitating more often in quiet moments to her debut story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, which contains one of the best descriptions of losing love I've found. A woman's lover experiences "reverse evolution," becoming a monkey, then a salamander-like primitive creature that she must let out to sea. "Sometimes I think he'll wash up on shore," she writes. "A naked man with a startled look. Who has been to history and back." And isn't that what we all want from past loves? Bewilderment and a sudden return to our stoop. Point: Bender. Last cold front, I dove headfirst in the Mary Gaitskill oeuvre after seeing her read at the Center for Fiction early in the year, gobbling down Don't Cry and Bad Behavior (again, deep shame of not getting there sooner). I also found and courted and decided to settle in with Amy Bloom, particularly Come to Me—which was the winner in the "story openings I wish I'd written" category: "I wasn't surprised to find myself in the back of Mr. Klein's store, wearing only my undershirt and panties, surrounded by sable." The last woman-penned story collection I read was Michele Latiolais' forthcoming Widow, which is weird and sad and compulsive and continues to stick to my ribs. Latiolais writes about grief in such a raw way—she joins the general pantheon of No-More-Husband literature (high priestess: J-Did), but her style is so unique as to be another genre altogether. And also! Danielle Evans' Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, which nails so much in so little space.
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