Mary Gaitskill’s debut story collection is definitely one of the best collections I’ve read this year. It’s a wide range of stories -male and female protagonists, 1st and 3rd person narration, and while there are some strongly connected themes running through this collection -love and romance, sex work, drug use, writing and living in New York, and BDSM- these stories are diverse and unique. Any of these stories would stand up well all it’s own merit, but they make an especially good read when grouped together. I love me a good collection of strong and different stories with a unifying voice behind them all.
One aspects of Gaitskill’s writing that I find especially impressive is her effortless androgyny. Stories written from a male character’s perspective are unmistakably male -a hard thing to pull off with a light touch. Gaitskill’s characterization seems effortless and authentic. Perhaps some of the male characters in these stories are especially nasty, but never in a way that seems like a straw man, just an unfortunately common example of a very believable and very shitty person. None of her gendered perspectives in Bad Behavior fall into an objective voice or a sense of authorial remove -they are simply extensions of her gendered characters, expressing the biases and perspectives of those characters alone in a masterful use of free indirect narration.
Gaitskill is known for her frequent depictions of the stereotypically taboo -sex work, drugs, sado-masochism, and the dom/sub paradigm as expressed in human sexuality. Many writers who traffic in these taboos are often painfully aware of the response of the more buttoned-up among us, and use these subjects more as a way to establish alternative cred or a sense of being edgy than as narrative elements (this tends to seem especially foolish as sexual mores change over time). Gaitskill is certainly not one of those writers. Her stories rely on these themes to do a lot of the heavy lifting, but never in a voyeuristic way. The kink in here is real and matter-of-fact, and that’s a welcome change from much of the lesser writing on the subject -as well as considerably ahead of it’s time, considering how many people have read books about multiple variations on the color grey over the last few years.
Recommendation: Read it! Unless you have a stick up your ass about kinky shit (but if the stick up your ass is in your ass in a sexy way, you are exempted from the stick-up-your-ass modifier above).