Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior

bad behavior

Would you read something considered taboo? Would it even cross your mind to write about it? This is the world that Mary Gaitskill calls her own in her short story collection, Bad Behavior. Considered a classic, her first book marked Gaitskill’s arrival into the literary scene. 

Set in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and peopled with working-class drug addicts, intelligent hookers, stable housewives, smug yuppies, and sensually deprived professionals, Bad Behavior depicts a cruel and tender world where romance and modern perversity go hand in hand.

In the first story entitled, “Daisy’s Valentine”, the story starts as follows:

Joey felt that his romance with Daisy might ruin his life, but that didn’t stop him. He liked the idea in fact. It had been a long time since he’d felt his life was in danger of further ruin, and it was fun to think it was still possible.

He worked with Daisy in the clerical department of a filthy secondhand bookstore on the Lower East Side of Manhattan…

He had watched Daisy for almost a year before making a pass at her. He had been living with Diane for eight years and was reluctant to change anything that stable. Besides, he loved Diane. They’d had such a good eight years that by now it was almost a system.

He had met Diane at Bennington. He’d been impressed by her reputation in the art department, by the quality of the LSD she sold and by her rudeness. She was a tall, handsome thirty-three-year-old woman…

And so begins the story.

I felt the author’s ability as a writer through the first few pages. The attention to details, the introduction of the main characters, the setting, and the quick scenes that give the reader a jab to what’s to come…the possibilities, the risk, the ruin of certain doomed characters that Gaitskill also displays among her other stories.

In “Daisy’s Valentine,” Joey’s stalker-like tendency to fascinate is locked specifically at Daisy:

For a long time he just looked at her. That alone made him so happy, he was afraid to try anything else. Maybe in would be better to hold her winglike shadow safe in the lock of his memory than to touch the breathing girl and lose her. (9)

Romance is certainly taken under a different light in Gaitskill’s stories and it really makes you think how quickly it can take a perverse turn for the worst.

The guys in these stories are, to be frank, patronizing and needy:

“I love you. I don’t care about anything else.  I want to cast my mantle of protection over you” (11).

And the women are masochistic: 

“I’m only nice to people who are mostly mean to me. Once somebody told me to say away from so-and-so because he beat up girls. They said he broke his girlfriend’s jaw. So I began flirting with him like wild…isn’t it awful? I actually wanted this nut to hit me” (12).

It’s when these set of characters are placed into one story after another that the thought of being rescued comes across their minds. Either one or the other of these set of misfits long for tolerance, acceptance, and an equal. When it can’t become a reality, it’s easy to see why they resort to fantasy.

“Why would you have a fantasy like that?” She looked disturbed.

“I don’t know. It’s not important.”

She continued to stare at him, almost stricken. “I think it’s because you feel estranged from people. You want something extreme to happen so you can show that you love them, and that you deserve love from them.” (18)

In “A Romantic Weekend,” the situation is more dark and perverse. Insecurity and “a state of ghastly anxiety” (27) completely envelops the main female character. Like other characters in Gaitskill’s stories, love is sometimes mistaken for something else.

She was in love with the idea of intelligence, and she overestimated her own. (29)

And mistakes are eventually realized a little too late:

How, she thought miserably, could she have mistaken this hostile moron for the dark, brooding hero who would crush her like an insect and then talk about life and art? (43)

“You have really disappointed me,” she said. “This whole thing has been a complete waste of time” (44).

Overall, I definitely believe that everyone should experience this book for themselves. Not to give much of any other story away (it’s really hard to do actually…), the rest of the stories are as follows (with a couple of quotes that I liked):

-“Something Nice” : Sometimes the oddest set of people tell you how special you are and it isn’t too late to change.

“Don’t you see how special you are? No other girl I’ve seen like this would ever have thought to say something like that. All they can think of is how to get more money out of me and here you are worrying about how much I’m spending. I’m not trying to flatter you, you are different” (61).

…When he thought of her he didn’t feel love or anything like it. He felt a sort of painful fondness (67).

-“An Affair, Edited” :

“It’s so interesting, now that I’m closer to success, I’ve become much less interested in it. I’ve always known that i would be successful, that I just had to work for it. But it was always out of reach, so I obsessed about it all the time. It was a goal. Now it’s more like a natural outcome, another element of my life to be experienced.”

“…Things are always less important once you’re assured of having them” (78).


-“Trying to Be” : “customer-hooker romance”


-“Other Factors” : 

“You have a way, you know, of shoving your vulnerability right into people’s faces. Or something that you call vulnerability, anyway. You sometimes do it immediately upon meeting them. You force people to deal with it…Don’t be angry with me for saying this…you used to do it a lot, and it’s kind of strange to be confronted so aggressively with somebody else’s frailty. Some people will want to protect you, as I did, but some people will want to hurt you. Others will be merely afraid of you, for the obvious reason that it reminds them of their own frailty” (163-4).

– and “Heaven”