I never loved pony books. Like many girls, I briefly tried to direct my longing for contact – primal and protosexual – into a dream of fusion with something more beautiful, more powerful than me: a horse. But then I found that riding was less sensual than political; it was to do with what you could afford to ride, and how often, and how you could afford to look while doing it. So far, so much like other teen courting rituals.
The Mare, like many of Mary Gaitskill’s works, is the story of a teenage girl. The Dominican-American Velveteen Vargas leaves her home in Brooklyn for “Friendly Town”, where a white couple – the childless Ginger and Paul – offer her a holiday under the Fresh Air Fund. “I’ve spent the last ten years nurturing myself and looking at my own shit,” Ginger says. “It’s time to nurture somebody else now.” She is attempting that most dangerous of things: to do good. She pays for Velvet to have riding lessons, which become an obsession, revealing society in miniature, or perhaps humanity itself.
Like other works by Gaitskill, The Mare is told polyphonically by means of interior monologues. Velvet is superbly articulate, especially about moments when she is not: “I felt, but not a normal feeling that you can say what it is.” She is also dyslexic: “although she could sound the words out perfectly and sometimes even understand their meanings individually, she could not really understand sentences put together”. No surprise; words are less than reliable. When Ginger talks to her contemporaries – biological mothers – she feels their “friendly unfriendliness” and wonders, “How do people make this simple sound into a mixture of real and false, the false mocking the real for the two seconds they rub together?”
Words are also to do with nurturing: “mare”, as Gaitskill notes, resembles the French “mère”, and motherhood is central here. “I am going down . . . like every woman in particular,” Ginger says, as if women crumbled more easily than men. She means menopause, the end of potential childbirth. As Velvet becomes a woman, her birth mother finds her to be “like a stupid animal”. Parallels are drawn between women and horses through the body: “She kicks because of hormones, because – well, basically, she’s just being a girl,” says Pat the trainer about Velvet’s horse.
Naming is a powerful force. The abused horse Funny Girl is rechristened “Fugly Girl” by the bitchy stable girls, then “Fiery Girl” by Velvet, who both identifies with her and wants to save her, just as Ginger wants to save Velvet.
Ginger at first sees Velvet as a cute animal: “Her skin was a rich brown; her lips were full, her cheekbones strong. She had a broad, gentle forehead, a broad nose, and enormous heavy-lashed eyes with intense brows . . . She was ours!” As Silvia Vargas says of her daughter, “some fool woman has made her into a pet”, yet neither people nor animals are easily petted.
“Human love”, says Ginger, “is the vilest thing” and “the most powerful drug in the world”. Paul says of Velvet: “I was beginning to feel we were doing some strange violence to her.” S&M has long been Gaitskill’s paradigm and in The Mare it sits in the ethics of the horse/rider relationship. Why do they care if you hit them with a whip?” Velvet asks. “It’s all psychological,” answers Beverly the sadistic trainer. “You control them from inside their heads. The physical is back-up. Mostly.” While Velvet uses horse behaviour to excuse her participation in bullying (“We ran together”), Ginger holds on to the distinction: “You are not a horse. You are a person.” Horses remain amoral: “one thousand pounds of unpredictable power”.
The Mare is a book about “nice” and “nasty” – words Gaitskill’s characters use to fumble at concepts of good and evil. Silvia finds Ginger “nice like a little girl is nice”. Velvet’s boyfriend, Shawn, says that “Ginger could be nice because people like her got other people to do the violence for them”. The difference is one of race. “Why is it that white people can walk their path in a way that black people – and people of my colour – cannot?” Velvet asks. At her lowest point (and Velvet’s), Ginger finds herself wondering if non-whites are “just different”, and discovers, “I’m racist. At least now I know.”
Gaitskill’s world is agonising because moral choice exists but is constrained by cruel circumstance. Silvia once had the privilege of riding a horse. Up there she saw “my life, going in different directions”. Thrown off, she has a vision of hell. “I was there, with the shit people.” Hell is a constant option. “I don’t think God would have to send people there, I think they would go there by themselves,” says Ginger who, like Velvet, has a vision of visiting it by “a door in our backyard”.
It is easy to question a white artist addressing dilemmas of white privilege. Yet not only does Gaitskill take this as her subject, but the act of writing The Mare is a direct challenge to what Justine in Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991), noticing her white mother’s careful relationship with her black maid, calls the “bloodless world of decency and politeness”.
The Mare has little of the gleeful disgust of Gaitskill’s previous books but this makes it pricklier than her most outrageous sexual tragicomedies. I loved Gaitskill before The Mare because, with brutal hilarity, she gave humanity to bullies and mean girls. But here, like Ginger, she is telling me, relentlessly, painfully, that “any good thing might happen, anything”.
Joanna Walsh’s books include the collection “Vertigo” (And Other Stories) and “Hotel” (Bloomsbury Academic)
The Mare by Mary Gaitskill is published by Serpent’s Tail (441pp, £14.99)
This article appears in the 20 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt