Gaitskill’s Fictions of Disappointment

Namara Smith

In “A Romantic Weekend,” a story from Mary Gaitskill’s first collection, Bad Behavior, a man and a woman who are only casually acquainted go out of town for the weekend. The two seem to have met in a bar, or possibly an S/M club, and recognize in each other the complementary desire to humiliate and be humiliated. Each has been looking forward to the trip, nursing symmetrical fantasies of what it will be like: he pictures her kneeling in black stockings and handcuffs; she hopes he is “a savage” and imagines him enfolding her in his arms like the hero of a Harlequin novel.

The weekend begins badly. Their conversation stalls at the airport bar and on the plane. When they arrive at their destination—his grandmother’s place in Washington, DC—it is decidedly unromantic, an old woman’s apartment chintzed out in floral print, artificial flowers, and ceramic figurines. Their sex is equally disillusioning. The two go through the motions of the violent, transporting encounter they had imagined. But when he begins gnawing on her breast, like an angry baby or a ferret, she is repulsed; he, in turn, is disgusted by her tense and wary response. The “seductive puffball cloud” that had enveloped them dissolves, leaving behind only “two drunken, bad-tempered, incompetent, malodorous people blinking and uncomfortable on its remains.”

This basic plot—two people meet, project overlapping delusions on each other, and are mutually disappointed—structures much of Gaitskill’s fiction. The ways that others coincide with the private figures of our imagination is her abiding subject. In her previous work, Gaitskill has explored this theme primarily through the lens of destructive sexual relationships. Her latest novel, The Mare, centers on a different type of relationship, but one with just as much potential for misunderstanding and thwarted desire. The main characters are Velveteen Vargas (“Velvet”), an 11-year-old Dominican girl from Brooklyn; Ginger Roberts, a 47-year-old white woman who becomes her unlikely foster mother; and a horse named Fugly Girl—the mare of the novel’s title—that provides a way for both of them to understand their attachment, and, ultimately, to move beyond it.

Gaitskill is less interested in personal confession than in illuminating the inescapable contradictions at the heart of all relationships between caregiver and child.

Ginger is a familiar figure in Gaitskill’s pantheon: a fragile, intense woman recovering from a brush with a glamorous but destructive urban milieu—an older and slightly kookier version of Alison from Veronica, or Justine from Two Girls, Fat and Thin. Following a brief period of success as an artist “visible only in lower Manhattan,” Ginger’s career evaporated into a chaotic jumble of drugs and self-destructive relationships. Now she lives in a small town in upstate New York with her husband, Paul, a college professor she met in AA. Her life is comfortable, if circumscribed; she stills paints, but no longer professionally, and spends a lot of time walking around aimlessly in the middle of the day.

When they met, Paul had wanted a child, but they were unable to conceive. They discuss adopting, but settle for the cheaper option of signing up as host parents with the Fresh Air Fund, a nonprofit that organizes summer vacations upstate for poor inner-city children. In real life, Gaitskill herself participated as a host in this program, an experience she described in a long essay in Granta. In both the essay and the novel, Gaitskill is honest about the program’s unsavory aspects, its appeal to the moral vanity of its well-off, predominately white host families, the power imbalances and exploitative potential hidden behind its airbrushed photos of “white kids and black kids holding flowers and smiling, of white adults hugging black kids.”

But The Mare is not a self-flagellating excoriation of liberal pieties, and Gaitskill is less interested in personal confession than in illuminating the inescapable contradictions at the heart of all relationships between caregiver and child. When Ginger meets Velvet, she is instantly smitten: “The child turned her eyes fully on us. I had an impulse to cover my stunned heart with my hand, and a stronger impulse to touch the girl’s face.” Velvet’s initial response is warier. (“She was smiling like she knew me and she did not.”) The turning point in their relationship comes later that night, when Ginger turns off the movie she had picked out for them to watch—a gritty boxing film starring a poor Latina girl—and puts on The Princess Diaries. As Julie Andrews presents Anne Hathaway with her tiara and crown jewels, Velvet draws closer to Ginger and, “in a trance of pleasure, this little girl who did not know me leaned against me and put her head on my shoulder.”

This scene sets the pattern of their relationship. Ginger throws herself into her new role as surrogate mother with feverish zeal. She buys Velvet a bike, a sweatshirt from the Gap, a pink boom box, a ring in the shape of a butterfly, a pair of jeweled rubber sandals. She brushes her hair, sings to her at night, and calls her “Princess.” Together, they go on long walks in the countryside, to the park, to the county fair. It’s easy to see what Velvet is getting out of this arrangement. It gives her a sense of security; it places her at the center of the miniature world the two have created. But Gaitskill also shows the less obvious pleasure that Ginger derives from her relationship with Velvet. “Her presence made everything special,” Ginger thinks. “The order of the house, which before I took for granted, now looked to me like something alive and full of goodness when I got up every morning and found the dishes she and I had washed in the drainer, the fruit in the bowl, the cereal and bacon ready to be cooked and eaten by somebody besides me and Paul.”

Photograph courtesy of rayand / Flickr

The Mare itself imposes a comforting, familiar order on its material. The novel draws heavily on the cadences and imagery of classic children’s literature: Alice in Wonderland and the Narnia books are mentioned in its opening chapters, and Velvet’s arrival in the country is skillfully patterned after these stories of displaced children, talking animals, and magical portals to other worlds. Velvet herself is named for two separate children’s books—The Velveteen Rabbit and National Velvet—and the drama that Ginger and Velvet act out is an amalgam of all these influences. On the first afternoon of her visit, Ginger takes Velvet to the stables next door. They pass through a gate marked “Wildwood,” and “suddenly there was too much space around us—green and green and green with some little fences and in the distance a big building with a giant hole for a door.” It is dark and warm inside the stable, and Velvet can hear the horses shifting restlessly in their stalls as if talking to each other.

In the last stall is a mare with a ragged ear and scarred features, over whom a sign reads “Do Not Touch”; this horse, unsurprisingly to anyone who has ever read a novel about teenage girls and horses, turns out to be destined for Velvet herself. She works at the stables in exchange for lessons, learning how to clean and groom the horses, how to ride and jump; at night, she sneaks in to sing them lullabies. Her time at the stables acts as a form of therapy, exactly the kind of transformative encounter with nature offered by the Fresh Air Fund brochure.

But for all its emphasis on the natural world, the novel is saturated with kitsch. Much of its pleasure comes from the skill with which Gaitskill mimics the perspective of an 11-year-old girl, taking careful inventory of Velvet’s collection of treasured objects and lingering over the delights of the pink comforter and matching pink towel and washcloth Ginger gives her, the bar of soap with a plastic horse mysteriously suspended inside it, the novelty stirring sticks shaped like giraffes. Everything is pink and shiny and covered with flowers. Even the characters’ names—Ginger, Velvet, Strawberry—are sugary. The overall mood evokes a Claire’s jewelry store.

The question of what it means to be a “real mother” poses itself insistently throughout the novel.

Critical responses to The Mare have tended to read it as a defense of emotion in all its messiness and complexity. Reviewers have singled out the novel’s evocation of “primal intimacy” (Stacey D’Erasamo in the New York Times Book Review) and its “unapologetic abundance” of strong feeling (Leslie Jamison in Bookforum). But the book is also Gaitskill’s most self-consciously artificial creation. In marked contrast to the dreamlike, often directionless style of her previous novels, The Mare has a discontinuous, oddly jolting rhythm. It is constantly breaking the flow of its narrative to draw attention to its own form. In one of its longest set pieces, Ginger, in a quixotic attempt to melt Velvet’s mother’s heart and persuade her to move upstate, invites Velvet and her family to watch her perform in a community theater production of A Christmas Carol. During the performance, Ginger keeps glancing out into the audience to see if her performance is having its intended effect. “It’s working!” she thinks, seeing Mrs. Vargas’s soft and warm face. In the next chapter, narrated from Mrs. Vargas’s perspective, we learn that for most of the production she has been asleep. Later, listening to music in the car with Ginger, Velvet thinks, “Ginger’s music was on, this grown woman singing like she was my age. It was ugly and fake, her making her voice like that, but I didn’t care”—an obvious commentary on Gaitskill’s own act of ventriloquism.

In a different, less self-assured novel, passages like these might read as signs of authorial embarrassment, knowing winks to the reader intended to preempt criticism. In Gaitskill’s expert hands, these self-reflexive touches seem to point back to the novel’s central theme, the delicate politics of managing another person’s imaginative world. Ginger is telling a story to Velvet; it is a story that is comforting, that Velvet needs. It is also a story that Ginger herself needs, and one whose logic she pursues with the crazed intensity common to all of Gaitskill’s female protagonists. But Ginger is also in the relatively novel position, for a Gaitskill character, of being responsible for another person’s fantasy life as well as for her own. The Mare’s strangely jerky tempo, the way deploys the immersive techniques of children’s literature and sentimental novels only to frustrate the reader’s attempts to sink deeper into its imaginary world, mirror what is ultimately the book’s central subject: Ginger’s struggle to find the right balance of involvement and detachment in Velvet’s life.

The Mare ends, as it was clear it would from the opening pages, with Velvet’s triumphant performance in a show jumping competition. Everyone cheers. Ginger takes pictures. Velvet’s mother and brother arrive in a taxi at the last minute, and Mrs. Vargas sees her “worthless” daughter transformed into “a beautiful girl riding like a saint with a sword.” After an emotional reconciliation with her mother, Velvet promises to give up her horse and return home.

One way to read Velvet’s reunion with her mother is as the novel’s repudiation of the thin and unsatisfying fantasy offered by Ginger in favor of the deep and nurturing shelter of her biological mother’s love. The question of what it means to be a “real mother,” and whether Ginger qualifies as one, poses itself insistently throughout the novel. Although a few of Ginger’s acquaintances gush enthusiastically over her support for Velvet, most are more skeptical: they worry, fairly enough, about the intensity of Ginger’s attachment, the potential for abuse of power, the difficulty of caring for a child from another culture.

Beneath these concerns lurks a deeper suspicion that there is something not-quite-right about Ginger’s bond with Velvet, expressed in phrases like “playing at being a parent” and “messing with someone else’s child.” Even Paul, the sensible voice of moderation throughout the novel, ultimately falls back on biological terms to express his uneasiness: in the end, he thinks, “this girl was not my blood or Ginger’s. And poor Ginger, who’d had no child of her own, didn’t seem to know the difference.” For this reason, he worries that his wife’s attachment is “an unstable mix of things, combustible, a promise that could not be kept.”

After reading The Mare, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that there is indeed something combustible about Ginger and Velvet’s relationship, that it is an unstable compound of each one’s own needs and desires, and that, in some ways, Ginger is only playing at being Velvet’s mother, just as Velvet is only playing at being her daughter. But the question the novel asks is whether this makes them different from any parent and child.