A Girl, a Horse, a Trap

The Mare

by Mary Gaitskill
Pantheon, 441 pp., $26.95
David Shankbone
Mary Gaitskill at the Brooklyn Book Festival, September 2010

The Mare, Mary Gaitskill’s new novel, is the story of a girl and a horse. It grapples with innocence, possibility, and hope. It is about what happens after all her other books.

Gaitskill achieved literary notoriety with Bad Behavior, her first volume of short stories, published in 1988. Her beautiful, elegant prose about ugly and inelegant sex, as well as her insistent vision of the inevitable self-destructive distance between people, gave a disturbingly detailed face to the blank carelessness of 1980s Lower East Side scummy chic. The collection made Gaitskill a downtown celebrity. She writes about sex in a casually brutal way, and in Bad Behavior and the two story collections and three novels that have followed, it is not the fetishism or violence that is shocking, it’s the way her characters experience them with almost bland neutrality.

Gaitskill’s people are obsessive and bored. They circle each other endlessly, disappointed, dulled by drugs and life yet sharply attuned to the world that failed them: runaways from disappointed suburban fathers and startled suburban mothers; strippers, prostitutes, addicts, their legs spread in New York, Paris, San Francisco, their lives useless, if not quite meaningless.

There has always been an almost wry tenderness in Gaitskill’s work, too, as if the feeling kept taking her by surprise. Veronica, her superb novel that came out in 2005, is infused with the rueful affection of a deeply damaged narrator. The Mare has four narrators, all of them hurt, but not all of them ruined: a forty-seven-year-old reformed drug and sex addict and her husband, who live in Rhinebeck, New York; a beaten-down Dominican woman in Brooklyn who beats her children; and a twelve-year-old girl, her daughter, whose name is Velveteen. She’s called Velvet.

Gaitskill’s Velvet Vargas, a stubbornly independent little girl who lives in a dysfunctional family in a dead-end world, is a worthy literary descendant of Velvet Brown, the little girl in Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet. Unlike Gaitskill’s Velvet, Velvet Brown comes from a loving, stable environment. But the two Velvets share something essential: an unwillingness to be trapped. The little English girl in 1935 fought the trap of being a girl in a man’s world. For Velvet Vargas, that trap is also very real, and it is just one of many.

There is a tradition of horse stories about children, often twelve years old, often girls, that were essential reading fifty years ago when I was a twelve-year-old girl with a horse. The horse in the novels was usually wild, disobedient—no one could handle it until it bonded with the daydreamy child. The child, single-mindedly devoted and newly patient, brought out the best in the horse as the horse brought out the best in the child. The child protected the horse from those who did not recognize its nobility, and the protection of…

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