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Mary Gaitskill Makes the Superficial Bearable

Her new novel “The Mare” finds hidden truths in ordinary moments

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Considered superficially, Mary Gaitskill’s third novel The Mare is a Hollywood tearjerker: An abused girl falls in love with an abused horse. Make that an abused black girl from Crown Heights and an abused horse owned by white people in the Hudson Valley, and you have what would seem to be the perfect heartwarming tale. But Gaitskill’s fiction always reveals surface life to be more complex than it appears. “Stories,” she once wrote, “are the rich, unseen underlayer of the most ordinary moments.”

Ginger is a middle-aged painter whose art feels to her “more real than anything in ‘real’ life.” This is a lonely feeling, so she and her husband Paul decide to host a child for a two-week summer vacation through the Fresh Air Fund, which places inner-city kids in upstate New York homes. “It was sentimental and flattering to white vanity and manipulative as hell,” Ginger says of the Fresh Air Fund’s brochure. “It was also irresistible. It made you think the beautiful sentiments you pretend to believe in really might be true.” But Velvet, the eleven-year-old Dominican-American matched with Ginger and Paul, refuses to hew to her role as the kind, underprivileged girl saved by well-meaning, privileged strangers. Ginger rents movies about impoverished dark-skinned girls overcoming adversity; Velvet prefers one about a white girl who becomes a princess—a fantasy that appeals to her as much as the photos of “white adults hugging black kids” appeal to Ginger. Both Velvet and Ginger are too smart to believe their own fantasies, but it feels good to pretend to believe.

When Velvet discovers a gift for horseback riding at a local stable, the connection between Velvet and Ginger grows deeper and more confusing than either of them anticipated. During Velvet’s frequent weekend visits, Ginger falls in love with a child who can never be hers; Velvet falls in love with a dangerous rescue mare she names Fiery Girl; and Velvet’s mother, Silvia, an immigrant who works long hours in elder care, falls in love with the money Ginger sends her. Velvet shares her name with the heroine of Enid Bagnold’s 1935 National Velvet, in which a poor teenage girl and a runaway horse join forces and miraculously win the Grand National. Gaitskill may be honoring the classic story of a girl and a horse, but she is also complicating it. The Mare knows well that National Velvet is a beautiful story that isn’t real. But rather than mocking that unreal beauty, Gaitskill transforms naïve whimsy into pure ache. The painful limitations of real life only deepen the longing for a fairytale.

“Stories mimic life like certain insects mimic leaves and twigs,” Gaitskill once wrote. Just as the insect bears more complexity and possibility than the twig it imitates, Gaitskill’s precise portraits of real life—meaning plausible rather than actual events—include an unlifelike awareness of the unspoken, unseen realities beneath the apparent present. In “The Arms and Legs of the Lake,” a story from her collection Don’t Cry (2009), a man’s unreasonable cruelty to a mentally ill stranger comes from a reasonable sense of vulnerability. In “The Girl on the Plane,” from Because They Wanted To (1997), college boys express their tenderness for a promiscuous girl only when they’re mistreating her sexually. In “Secretary,” from Bad Behavior (1988), a smart, socially isolated woman is aroused when her boss spanks and humiliates her. Today, intelligent, self-aware women who enjoy being sexually objectified are familiar fictional archetypes. But “Secretary” has more nuanced humor and pathos than either its 2002 movie adaptation—which turned Gaitskill’s independent, complicated protagonist into a clichéd masochist—or newer books, like Fifty Shades of Grey and The Sexual Life of Catherine M. 

Too often, Gaitskill’s work has been misread on the coarsest level, with the focus on her most provocative subject matter (prostitution, S&M, bisexuality) rather than the art that turns her apparently familiar subjects into something new. Although Because They Wanted To was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award and her novel Veronica was a 2005 National Book Award finalist, Gaitskill has yet to reap the mainstream renown that the diversity and fineness of her work merits. She is a cult favorite, with a reputation as “the princess of darkness” and “the mistress of transgression.” She once said in an interview, “If anything is scary about my writing, it’s that it’s the product of a very particular vision, and doesn’t reference common speech that heavily. By ‘common speech’ I don’t mean language as much as an agreed-on way of seeing, or a short-hand.” 

In The Mare, Gaitskill writes of race, parenting, early adolescence, and horses with the same tender complexity that marked her earlier work on sex and relationships. The book is written from inside the minds of its main characters. The perspective changes frequently, sometimes from one paragraph to the next. Together, these overlapping inner monologues offer a full portrait of the visible and invisible factors at play in each scene. Gaitskill first describes Ginger’s experience of the moment when Velvet steps off the Fresh Air Fund bus and is introduced to her host parents: “I had an impulse to cover my stunned heart with my hands, and a stronger impulse to touch the girl’s face. … She was ours!” Here is how Velvet, with her funny, cutting preteen sensibility, feels at this same moment: “She smiled like she’d put a crown on my head. The smile was nice, but it was starting to be creepy, too. Because she was smiling like she knew me and she did not. But my face kept smiling back.” 

The power of Gaitskill’s writing comes, in part, from her ability to evoke strong emotions without offering the resolutions readers have come to expect. Anger doesn’t always lead to revenge; sorrow doesn’t necessarily result in catharsis. Gaitskill allows emotions to function as they do in life: They have no agency, but simply add richness—for better and for worse—to ordinary moments. This is particularly true of the relationship between Velvet and her mother. Silvia withholds affection from Velvet, while coddling and infantilizing her little brother Dante. She beats her daughter and calls her ugly and stupid. And yet beneath this superficial summary of her parenting, she and Velvet are engaged in the mutual fulfillment of deep needs. This is how the Vargas family appears from the outside: “The people on the subway looked at us because my mom sounded crazy yelling at me about what an idiot Ginger must be and saying I stole out of her purse and I eat too much and I wore her nightgown, dragging Dante along while he talked about killing some people he made up in his head.” At home, Silvia cooks asopao and does Velvet’s hair. Her cruel words sound different than they do on a crowded street corner: “Listen, you ungrateful girl, I’m trying to educate you. … Men are babies screaming for love. They get it, they throw it across the room until it breaks and then start screaming again. And always some dumb woman comes running.” It’s not that Silvia is right to mistreat her daughter. But her cruelty acknowledges a truth about the world that has no place in classic fairytales.

For a time, Velvet and Ginger do enact a fairytale, Ginger playing the role of loving caretaker and Velvet basking in her care. “It was like we were both living a dream we had known from television and advertisements and children’s books,” Ginger says. “A dream that neither of us had believed in yet had both longed for without knowing it.” Of course this dream doesn’t last. Velvet likes spending time with an adult who’s “always nice,” but she will never respect Ginger as much as her mother, who smacks Velvet when she listens dreamily to a love song on the subway. “You stupid girl,” she says, “you give everything away! In front of people!” 

Ginger buys Velvet a new outfit for her twelfth birthday, and the first time she wears it, a group of girls beats her up. Silvia is not surprised: “Did she think she was dressing a doll?” Both outraged and vindicated, Silvia comforts her daughter: 

My mother looked at the places somebody’d cut my face with heavy rings and she put medicine on it. It made me remember when I was little and she would wash me and comb my hair more softly than she does it now. Sometimes she would hum a song and her touch and her voice would wrap us up in a place where there was nothing but her and me. I would be very still and I would want her to keep doing it forever. It was like that now, except it was even better because she was angry, too, and not bitch-angry like at Mr. Nelson at the grocery. She was deep angry, but not at me; she was angry for me. This angry was big and warm like a horse, and it felt better than her nice. It was better than anything Ginger had, and what Ginger had was good.  

Velvet may feel clear outrage when she sees a trainer mistreat a horse—“I wanted to take the whip away from her and use it on her. I wanted it so bad I couldn’t see”—but her loyalty to her mother survives beatings, verbal abuse, and emotional manipulation. When her mother doesn’t come to pick her up from the train after a weekend with Ginger, Velvet thinks, “If I could only get back to her, I would never go to Ginger’s again. Even if it meant I would never see my mare.” 

Real love in Gaitskill’s work is often distorted into ugly shapes by circumstance. Too often, critics have focused on the ugliness and ignored the love. Helpfully, The Mare explicitly names this emotional state: “love wrapped in pain,” in Ginger’s words. Gaitskill has always been preoccupied less with her characters’ behavior than with the conscious and unconscious motives behind their impulses. Humans are, after all, much more than the sum of their actions. We see in The Mare that the compulsion to put oneself in the way of pain comes from hope: “I had always been haunted by that pitiful feeling,” Ginger says of her attachment to an abusive ex-boyfriend, “that there had been love between us. Secretly.” 

Velvet’s fledgling sexuality teaches her something of vulnerability that must be concealed from the outside world. She finds relief in her wordless connection with a horse: “I loved the feeling I got in my legs sometimes when I was on her, like the spot where my legs touched her sides was the best place in the world and we were both in it.” The “leg-feeling,” as Velvet calls it, is endlessly far from her middle school, where “there were men guards and metal detectors in the halls … and [the girls] were all mad bugged about their hair. … It felt like people were acting in a show and they didn’t even pick the show, somebody else did, but who?” 

The roles Gaitskill’s characters play in their daily lives are a fiction they inhabit without intending to. Paradoxically, in her stories, Gaitskill allows us to pause and look beneath these roles—Ginger trying to be a “normal woman,” Silvia beating her daughter, Velvet failing her classes—until we feel a hidden depth that makes the surface world bearable. Riding the subway after a visit with her horse, Velvet finds comfort in a stranger: 

He was by himself, but he did not look sad or quiet. … I looked at him and my sick feeling opened up and became deep feeling. I remembered my dream of the horses, running into the bright red sun, moving in and out of each other. The subway ran faster and faster in the underwater tunnel. We moved into Brooklyn toward my cousin’s house. My feeling went deeper. It was like we were the horses, moving together, in and out of each other, going someplace we needed to go. Even though Dante told me my ring looked like something you get from a gumball machine and I smacked him and my cousin said my mom gave her permission to whip me, so shut up. 

The Mare is worth reading for the plot alone, which is as uplifting as it is gutting. But Gaitskill is more than a gifted story-teller. She is an enchanter, to borrow Nabokov’s description of what makes a good writer a major one. The particular way in which she enchants—by putting into words the wordless undercurrent of human behavior—is explicit in The Mare. I came away from the book not knowing whether it was happy or sad. How could a single mind ever hope to make sense of the abundant life around each moment? Which doesn’t mean that real life doesn’t hurt like hell. But even love wrapped in pain, when felt deeply enough, turns out to be neither love nor pain, but something else.