Mary Gaitskill's punk realism
Enough time has passed since the ascendance of the “literary brat pack” that we might be able to reorient its parts more accurately. Because they came at the same time in the 1980s, wrote about the same kinds of people, shared the same publishers, and caroused in the same clubs, the media made a diversified but questionably rated cultural commodity bond of the moment. But hindsight grants us the privilege of seeing just how incompatible their efforts were with each other. Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York and Jay McInereny’s Bright Lights, Big City heed to a sort of pop or new romantic fiction. These are nothing like Bret Easton Ellis’s novels which convey something more akin to punk realism; tagged along with him is Mary Gaitskill.
Gaitskill seems the odd author out of this group despite her age, the 1984 debut of her short story collection Bad Behavior, and its predominantly urban setting and young disaffected characters. Maybe she didn’t have the same fevered social life as the others; but at the same time, the intensity and depth of her writing is far more accomplished than any of her peers.
Bad Behavior lacks the apocalyptic bacchanal of Less Than Zero and American Psycho. Its amorality is comparably lo-fi, extremism less aloof and less satirically distinct from the reader’s everyday experience, in particular, everyday relationships.
A predominant theme, at least as detected in my reading, is boundaries – or the lack thereof; of different worlds and perspectives meeting and commingling. The underworld and the straight world are barely distinct. Brothels are as blandly static as offices; offices are rife with sexual improprieties. Relationships are less framed as conflicting needs and desires than as bargains being endlessly renegotiated. The collection, always carrying a cult appeal, has arisen somewhat as an anti-text of #MeToo, or perhaps as a text of its aftermath. It does not condemn or comment upon the vulgarities and dominance games its female characters must maneuver, but reports them in an unsentimental, occasionally acerbic but timelessly unaffected third-person narration (excepting “Secretary,” written in a slightly less unsentimental first-person).
In this sense, it helps to think of Gaitskill less in relation to the literary brat pack and more in regard to Breece D’J Pancake, whose prose was just as spare, his narrative world just as bleak, but infused with a tenderness for his characters and an indignation toward their hardship that Gaitskill declined to indulge. The stories in Bad Behavior lack arcs; few of their characters mature or transform to any noticeable degree, some even get worse. Love, careers, and aspirations are flat, familiar circles.