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Has BDSM Queen Mary Gaitskill Gone Soft With The Mare?

Has BDSM Queen Mary Gaitskill Gone Soft With The Mare?

the mare

Mary Gaitskill became my favorite author while reading her short story “An Affair, Edited” that, like much of her writing, has significant BDSM themes. In the passage that has become my mantra, she writes:

“Listen,” he said, raising himself above her on his elbow. “I want you to be strong. You’ve come so far in spite of everything. I want you to be successful.”
“I am strong,” she said. Her eyes were serene. “I’m stronger than anyone else I know.”

I love this for the juxtaposition of the patronizing man and the woman putting him in his place. He thinks because of her past and because he has sex with her in a certain way that she is weak, but she is sure of herself. The passage reminds me that however well people think they know me, I’m the only one who really controls what I’m capable of. In her new novel, The Mare, Gaitskill continues to explore the strength of women:

“Stallions, geldings, they can be tough. But while a mare’ll take a lot of shit, eventually she will draw a line in the sand, and when she does that—cross it and die doing it. Just like a woman. It’s why some people don’t like mares.”

Mary Gaitskill is also strong as hell. A former teenage runaway who dabbled as a call girl, she was nominated for the National Book Award for her novel Veronica, received a Guggenheim fellowship, among other numerous accolades, and had her short story “Secretary” turned into a movie (she has called the film, in which a steely Maggie Gyllenhaal purposefully urinates in her wedding dress, the “Disney version” of the story, which should give you an idea of her headspace). Her writing is approachable, unafraid, and timeless. Bad Behavior was published in 1988 and is still a true voice to the gritty realities of being young and explorative in New York City.

I attended a reading by Gaitskill during her book tour, and found her exactly like her writing and background would suggest: as stone-faced as her bio picture, almost aggressively neutral, honest, and keenly tuned to the human experience. (She is also a few things I did not expect, such as, apparently, a big fan of Ludacris and Missy Elliott.) Despite spending five years on The Mare, she still worried about covering new territory: “I don’t know enough [about these topics], this is a very bad idea…but I didn’t want to return the money, either.”

Indeed, I was concerned when I opened her new book, The Mare, to discover that this white 60-year-old lady had decided to write from the perspective of a young Dominican girl. Oh no, I thought, She’s trying to be Junot Diaz.

But of course, Mary Gaitskill knows who she is, and wrote this book accordingly. The novel has several narrators, but mainly switches between Velvet, aforementioned young Dominican girl living in the slums of Brooklyn (“I was an eleven-year-old girl, and I didn’t need my face in my mama’s titty no more—that is, if I ever did.”), and Ginger, a former addict/artist turned affluent, childless white lady living upstate (“I am strange, more than the bare facts of my life would suggest.”). The two become acquainted via the Fresh Air Fund, a charity that sends poor kids to see how the other half lives (Ginger acknowledges the program “flatters white vanity”). Velvet is sent to participate because her mom wants her out of trouble for the summer, while Ginger signs up as a “trial” for adoption, which she and her husband are considering. Velvet instantly captures Ginger’s heart with her pure presence, while Velvet discovers a natural gift when she tries horseback riding, a hobby at significant odds with her urban life. The novel centers around the relationships and battle of wills between Velvet and growing up, Ginger trying to be her mom, Velvet’s actual mother not appreciating this, and an abused mare that doesn’t trust humans (“I thought, Your scars are like the thorns on Jesus’s heart.”).

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(Gaitskill notes she is “not one of those horse people,” and actually took four years of riding lessons to inform her to write the book. Her study of the Spanish language was less thorough, as she still doesn’t speak it, but many of the events in the book are based on her experiences with the Fresh Air Fund).

Because it’s Gaitskill, this book goes much deeper than “poor girl finds happiness in rich life.” There are no one-dimensional characters here, and she does not shy away from tragedy or truth. Gaitskill explores whether the charity program does good or harm; what a mother’s love can look like; wanting to belong; what can break a horse or a woman; death and hell (Velvet’s brother’s name is Dante); and what affects the secret inner frequency of humans.

But (and this is why I would be a terrible book critic), as deep and as meaningful as any book is, I have a hard time appreciating it if it is not enjoyable to read. I mean, I love David Foster Wallace, but sometimes reading him is just so much work.

I flew through the 440-page The Mare in two days. It’s that good. Gaitskill’s writing maintains its beauty, and while the novel is decidedly less risqué than her previous work (The New York Times called it “book-clubbable,” which I think is an oversimplification), it is still far from conventional or expected. Whether you read it to dive into the themes or for a fantastic story, The Mare is a one hell of a novel, and I can’t wait to read it again.

Erin R

Copy Editor at Literally, Darling
Erin R. hails from Austin, Texas, and meandered through Houston, San Diego, and Milan before high-tailing back to the greatest state in the nation. Her interests include correct spelling and grammar, her adorable cat Shiloh (see #FloofWednesday), making poignant lists, and consorting with her troublemaker friends at bars on East 6th. She is seriously starting to freak out about growing up, but is looking forward to crankiness and sarcasm being more acceptable. For more writing, check out her website www.erinrussellwrites.com
Erin R
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