By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, Nov. 2, 2015
WHEN THE WRITER Mary Gaitskill was a child in the 1950s, she was once taken to a roller-skating rink. She looked around and burst into tears. She didn’t understand why everybody was wearing the same thing, those poodle skirts and poodle hairdos.
‘‘It meant something, and I didn’t know what it was — it felt frightening to me,’’ she told me recently. ‘‘I thought, My God, this is too complicated.’’ It was a feeling that lasted until adulthood — a sense that people were speaking to one another in a code she couldn’t decipher. Out of this elemental confusion, Gaitskill has produced a body of work so acutely observant of human behavior that it’s frequently described in the language of violation: a vivisection, a dental drill, a flogging. There is very rough sex in her books, and characters who binge eat and rip out their hair. But the real danger is elsewhere: It’s in glances and gestures and sudden silences, in craving contact and being rebuffed. ‘‘I wanted to communicate and connect,’’ Gaitskill said when I asked why she became a writer. ‘‘I simply didn’t seem able to do it.’’
I first met Gaitskill on an August afternoon at her apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She is beautiful, startlingly so — straight-backed and contained, her body a wick of tensile energy, her hair a silvery blond. She offered me sparkling water and hunted down a lime — ‘‘I can’t serve it to you naked,’’ she said, quietly aggrieved — and for two hours we talked across her kitchen table. She has a new novel out this month, ‘‘The Mare,’’ and she seemed jittery about its reception.
Her apartment is a jumble of tatty rugs, climbing plants and books (in one pile in the kitchen: a Brassai monograph; ‘‘The Art of Joy,’’ an Italian epic on the pleasures of perversion; and a collection of Peanuts comics). She can’t afford to live in New York on her own, she said, so she shares the place with a roommate — a writer who teaches English at a college and yoga on the side, and who, I suspect, is responsible for the knob of sage on the windowsill and the kitschy Indian decorations.
Gaitskill is friendly, if wary in the way of habitually truthful people trying to stay out of trouble, and slightly irritable. She feels misunderstood, which, of course, she is. For more than two decades, she has been the object of admiration but also titillated curiosity and fear. In 1988, at age 33, Gaitskill published a short-story collection called ‘‘Bad Behavior’’ about speed freaks in love, missed connections between prostitutes and lovelorn johns. The book combined formal elegance, sweetness and sadomasochism, and received a remarkable amount of attention. Rights were immediately sold to a dozen foreign publishers; Michiko Kakutani praised its ‘‘radar-perfect detail’’ in The New York Times; and this darkly funny chronicle of thwarted sexual adventure became something of a bible for college women. Four books followed, in the same vein — gritty city stories of characters trying, as Oscar Wilde put it, ‘‘to cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul.’’
Gaitskill isn’t scary because she conjures monsters; monsters, she points out, are almost always in fashion. What makes her scary, and what makes her exciting, is her ability to evoke the hidden life, the life unseen, the life we don’t even know we are living. The critic Greil Marcus, a champion of her work, calls her a descendant of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne ‘‘is aware of the hidden chambers in the heart,’’ he told me. ‘‘He is aware that there are things that people won’t talk about and there are things that people can’t talk about — and those aren’t the same things. He wants to reveal all those layers.’’ Gaitskill’s fiction unfolds in these psychological spaces; she knows that we, unlike plants, don’t always grow toward the light, that sometimes we cannot even be coaxed toward it.
Gaitskill has a soft, high voice, and she speaks haltingly, with great care, as if she is on the witness stand. Every word seems to pass through some rigorous internal inspection, and only then is it delivered, gingerly, and immediately revised for accuracy. ‘‘A friend’’ — she began a story and then corrected herself — ‘‘someone I know, who I actually have an ambivalent relationship with.’’ In this way, slowly, circumspectly, we discussed the new book, which at first glance feels out of place in her oeuvre.
‘‘The Mare’’ doesn’t have the usual feel of Gaitskill’s fiction, the prickly wit and enveloping sanctuary, the lure of a dark bar on a hot day. It’s earnest and violently of the daylight, stuffed with squalling schoolchildren and focused less on missing connections than surviving them. Velveteen Vargas — Velvet — is the unequivocal heroine of the book (another first for Gaitskill), an 11-year-old Dominican-American from Crown Heights who is sent upstate by a Fresh Air Fund-like organization to spend the summer with a white couple, Ginger and Paul, who have no children of their own. In chapters that rotate points of view, we see Ginger’s increasing attachment to the child and Paul’s increasing anxiety. (‘‘There was something unnerving about the way Ginger was toward Velvet,’’ he thinks. ‘‘Something fevered, with a whiff of addiction.’’) We meet Velvet’s mother — cruel, combustible Mrs. Vargas, who is provoked by Ginger’s meddling — and Velvet herself, the still point at the center of so much adult muddle, a young girl consumed with earning the trust of an abused horse.
‘‘The Mare’’ is a more expansive, more elaborately plotted story than we’ve come to expect from Gaitskill, and it’s not a book she ever wanted to write, she told me. What, after all, does she know of motherhood or writing from the point of view of a poor child of another race — let alone horses? But Gaitskill has always written from the margins, peering in: Feelings of exclusion and confusion powerfully motor her imagination. And in ‘‘The Mare,’’ in writing about race, poverty and family life, she has traveled to some of the farthest vistas of her career.
At some point in our conversation, I discovered that Gaitskill had figured out how to turn off my recorder, which was lying between us on the table. She’s fond of talking off the record, and she batted at the machine with a quick, sure motion, like a cat. Only then would she talk about her family, say, or go deeper into her past. She apologized once, wryly, ‘‘I’m sure it would make for a more dramatic piece.’’
But much of what she was hesitant to discuss is known and even threaded into her fiction. Gaitskill was born in Lexington, Ky., in 1954. Her family moved often — sometimes when her father, a teacher, transferred jobs, usually around Detroit. There is still a suburban teenage argot that creeps into her diction from time to time (‘‘skank,’’ ‘‘harsh on’’). She and her two younger sisters were forced to change schools constantly, and she grew up shy and often ostracized. The dread of those years emerges in her novel ‘‘Two Girls, Fat and Thin’’ — the fearsome world of the playground and the boys who had ‘‘faces like knives.’’ Gaitskill read ravenously, with the withdrawn child’s taste for stories of men of action: She loved ‘‘Tarzan’’ and ‘‘Peter Pan’’ and ‘‘The Lord of the Rings’’ — anything, she said, involving a quest in which people encounter enchanted beings. She even became enamored of a biography of Napoleon; in her isolation, she found his poignant.
High school went badly. She almost flunked out of one and was kicked out of another, a boarding school, which she described as a kind of Oz, lots of drugs, lots of hanging out on patches of ice on Lake Michigan. The rich kids had it figured out, she told me. They could get high and still manage their schoolwork. She never could. When she was 15, her psychiatrist advised her parents to have her committed. She ran away, or tried to. She had an idea of making it to New York, but shortly after she left, she was picked up by the police and taken home. Her parents soon sent her to a state mental institution. For two months, she was held there, without ever receiving an official diagnosis. Later in life, she would meet other women, contemporaries who had also been institutionalized for no real reason, perhaps for being promiscuous or unruly.
She drifted — from Canada to California and back again — selling flowers on the street, stripping, doing occasional sex work and beginning to think about writing. In her 20s, she returned to Michigan to go to the community college where her father taught, which she could attend free. She took remedial writing classes and studied journalism at the University of Michigan, while writing fiction on the side.
Of her mentors or friends in these years, she mentions only one — an eccentric older man, a used bookseller ‘‘with huge weird eyes,’’ who seemed to have read everything and encouraged her early work. She won the university’s prestigious Avery Hopwood writing award in 1981 and moved that year to New York, where she worked as a proofreader and receptionist and began writing the nine stories that would become ‘‘Bad Behavior.’’
Her first novel, ‘‘Two Girls, Fat and Thin,’’ about the acolytes of an Ayn Rand-like figure, was published in 1991, and the story collection ‘‘Because They Wanted To’’ followed in 1997. A story from ‘‘Bad Behavior,’’ ‘‘Secretary,’’ in which a young woman and her boss develop a sadomasochistic relationship, was made into the 2002 film starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, which Gaitskill found ‘‘too cute and ham-fisted.’’ She earned sobriquets like ‘‘queen of kink’’ and ‘‘downtown princess of darkness.’’ Such was her reputation that Emily Nussbaum, profiling her in 2005 in New York Magazine, removed her engagement ring before the interview (‘‘It just seemed … uncool,’’ she explained), only to discover that her subject had herself recently gotten engaged. Gaitskill met Peter Trachtenberg while they were both teaching at a writing workshop for veterans and married him four days after the Sept. 11 attacks — her guests arrived ‘‘stunned and gray,’’ she told Nussbaum. (The couple separated in 2010.) In 2005, her novel ‘‘Veronica,’’ which followed the friendship between a former model and a woman dying of AIDS, was nominated for a National Book Award.
Her characters grew up along with her. No longer proofreaders and prostitutes, they became M.F.A. professors or journalists on glamorous assignments. But everything she has written tells a version of one story — in the middle of the life of this proofreader or professor, a trapdoor suddenly opens. She is allowed a vision of the real essence of existence, something ‘‘sensate and unbearably deep,’’ as Gaitskill writes in her 2009 collection, ‘‘Don’t Cry’’ — the world as animals experience it, beyond language.
Early in Gaitskill’s work, it was sex that opened the trapdoor, or music. But beginning with ‘‘Don’t Cry,’’ and now with ‘‘The Mare,’’ it has been children.
Gaitskill and Trachtenberg considered adoption but decided against it for complex reasons. Gaitskill wasn’t sure she could balance parenting with her writing life, and there were financial concerns. Instead, for many years, they hosted two Dominican-American siblings at their home in upstate New York through the Fresh Air Fund. Gaitskill describes their mother as abusive, and she and Trachtenberg became deeply involved in the children’s lives, paying for a Catholic school and helping them with their homework. But the relationship grew tense — she wrote in the literary magazine Granta that the boy found living away from home confusing, at one point accusing Gaitskill of thinking herself superior to his mother; the girl ran away from her mother’s house and ended up at a group home after being judged too wild for foster care.
Much of this experience has found its way into ‘‘The Mare,’’ which is a novel about how love can be inflected by race and class and privilege. Gaitskill was reluctant to start the project, but she began to be visited by whole scenes, and then a strange feeling of possibility. ‘‘I felt these crazy surges of optimism,’’ she told me. ‘‘I was all over the map. I was telling a lot of people I loved them, and I meant it. My marriage broke up during that time — perhaps not surprisingly. The book was part of that. I could do something that felt unrealistic.’’ She took riding lessons and became, like Velvet, attached to a neglected horse of her own (she shows me a blurry photo of him on her phone and apologizes for his ‘‘winter weight’’). But at a certain point, she had misgivings: ‘‘I remember crying about it and telling somebody, ‘I’m making a fool of myself, and I can’t get out of it because I’m halfway through.’ ’’
After we had been talking for a while, Gaitskill got up for more water and frowned at the bottle in the fridge. It was Russian mineral water, and she wasn’t sure where it came from. There was a tentativeness to her movements in this apartment — she has lived here two years, but she didn’t seem to fully inhabit it yet. I couldn’t detect many traces of her: the pile of books in the kitchen, perhaps, the issue of Bookforum in the living room. The sunflowers in a small jar. I asked to see where she works. She writes drafts in the kitchen, she said, and types them at a small desk beneath a colorful painting in the dark front room. This painting is, frankly, insane. It features a cartoonish dog and cat, eyes agog. The perspective is slightly off, so the animals look as if they are simultaneously shrinking and growing — hallucinations that are themselves hallucinating. Gaitskill loves it. It was made by a friend of hers, a failed painter who never managed to sell the work in this series. I find it strange and touching that Gaitskill keeps it so close to where she herself creates. It feels like both warning and goad.
In ‘‘The Mare,’’ Gaitskill tries to evoke the effects of power, how it feels when it works on you, but you can’t quite name or comprehend it. Which is another way of saying that the novel harrows the particular plot she has made her own all these years, of weakness — and why it repels. (Proving her point, the critic James Wolcott once called her female characters ‘‘dishrags.’’) We are phobic of weakness, we treat it like a contagion, averting our eyes and hoping for the best. But Gaitskill puts her fingers in the wound. Even among other artists attracted to weakness as a theme, she is rare in being able to look at it on its own terms. She doesn’t treat it like a curiosity, like Diane Arbus, or a chink in the armor that might let in faith, like Flannery O’Connor. She isn’t afraid of it, like Muriel Spark; nor does she insist its depictions rouse us to action, like Sontag. She looks — just looks — and sees everything: how weakness is despised, how weakness can be cunning, how victims aren’t merely saints or dupes. ‘‘She has a way of noticing,’’ Lorin Stein, the editor of The Paris Review, told me. ‘‘There’s that line of Fred Seidel’s: ‘Everyone’s a sexual object. Everyone is something to use. Everyone is something good.’ That line makes me think of Gaitskill.’’
Two weeks later, I took a train to Tivoli, N.Y., a small town in the Hudson Valley where Gaitskill used to live and where she was visiting friends. This is the trip Velvet experiences in ‘‘The Mare,’’ the same shock of tumbling out of the sweltering city into a world so tended, so white and gaudily green. Gaitskill came to collect me from the station. She wore a soft-looking Mets T-shirt, jeans, running shoes — all gray, a gray that almost matches her hair. The effect, from a distance, was rather like chain mail. She was more aloof today, slightly hooded. ‘‘Brace yourself for the preciousness,’’ she said as we drove into town, passing yoga studios and expensive sandwich shops and a laundromat called the Lost Sock.
It was the late-afternoon lull, and most everything was shuttered. No one would sell us an expensive sandwich. We bought lemonade and cookies and sat outside a cafe in the strong sun. Immediately, Gaitskill started rehashing our last discussion, irritated by some of my questions. She thought them foolish. She is fluent when forceful, all the hesitation drains from her voice.
I told her I understood. I told her I was sorry. I told her we would have to discuss these things anyway. (I had asked if her book was bleak or happy, and about how her work had been regarded by critics.) She’s right not to want to focus entirely on the reception of her work — but how else could we correct misconceptions? How else could we discuss the life a book leads in the world? Her pique passed. She seemed satisfied, even, it felt to me, soothed that I could — or would — push back, however pleasantly. But I was left unsettled and alert, eating my cookie in large dry gobs. I thought of a line from ‘‘The Mare’’: ‘‘It felt like she was pressing on my weak spot, just to see what would happen.’’
Later, we took her usual route around town, an hourlong walk along main streets and through neighborhoods, today a hive of Saturday-afternoon activity. Everyone was occupied — even the pair of fat birds we encountered ambling across a lawn; people keep them around, Gaitskill said, because they nibble up the ticks.
Here, unlike in her apartment in Williamsburg, she was completely at home, moving freely, un-self-consciously. She settled in the area before she married and lived here on and off for many years. In an interview, she once mentioned the relief the townspeople seemed to take in her engagement: ‘‘Married, you’re basically part of the herd, and that makes life easier in a lot of ways, in terms of social support. But if you’re not by nature a herd animal, you start to feel like you’re passing.’’ In his memoir, ‘‘Another Insane Devotion,’’ Trachtenberg says of Gaitskill: ‘‘I think I have never met anyone more lonely.’’
How do we bridge our solitudes? In Gaitskill’s fiction, people are locked houses, ‘‘private cyclones,’’ doomed to draw near one another, assured of mutual destruction. There’s an old man in a Chekhov story who refers to women fondly, almost reverently, as ‘‘hatchets.’’ It’s a useful metaphor for all of Gaitskill’s characters, for how easily they slice one another open.
In ‘‘Two Girls, Fat and Thin,’’ Dorothy, her loneliest character, stares at women at the gym and wonders, ‘‘What would it be like to hold one of these complexly injured animals in your arms?’’ In ‘‘The Mare,’’ we see the characters start to try. Ginger communicates tenderness first through her hands, as she learns to brush Velvet’s hair. So, too, does Velvet slowly earn her horse’s trust. The horse is ‘‘head-shy,’’ sensitive of her head, where she had been scarred by a too-tight halter — and Velvet learns how to approach carefully. Before she even rides the horse, she performs a hundred small acts of daily devotion: She mucks out the horse’s stable and grooms her; she washes her between the legs with mint and digs dirt out of her hooves. She learns to pull the horse’s tail just so, so it stretches the spine.
We turned a corner onto an empty meadow, ringed by trees. In the distance was a large, gleaming stable. It’s not Gaitskill’s stable in Tivoli; she rides somewhere else, or she did. The horse she loved was just boarded in town and was moved not long ago by his owner. She said she doesn’t know where he is, or even if he’s alive. He was an old horse. It’s impossible not to number her losses in these years — the children, the marriage, the horse — even her small cat disappeared. In Granta, she wrote about how his disappearance shattered her — she visited psychics, drove around town and scattered clothes around her lawn so the cat might catch her scent and find his way home.
We were walking in the shadow of some trees when Gaitskill spoke of the children for the first time, how in spite of everything they faced, there was such ‘‘loveliness’’ in them, in their ‘‘scent and feel.’’ There was such yearning in these words, I didn’t know where to look. I remembered something she said to me in her kitchen, the first time we met. While working on ‘‘The Mare,’’ she kept repeating a phrase of Nabokov’s — ‘‘the lovely and lovable world which quietly persists.’’ She told me she once saw a film clip of the Sept. 11 attacks; as one of the towers came down, a sea gull passed by where the building had just been, utterly unperturbed. ‘‘I did want to kind of hold on to something lovely and lovable in the book,’’ she said. But the book has also been a way to hold on to what was lovely and lovable in life.
The final scene in ‘‘The Mare’’ features all the novel’s main characters, all of them hatchets, all of them head-shy, all of them together. What has disbanded in life has been preserved in her fiction, it turns out, and endowed with a kind of immortality. We walked on. I said something to her, and she disagreed. The wind picked up, and the meadow pulsed like a living being.