We talk about people—friends, lovers, public figures—as though they have consistent, defined personalities. “She’d never do that,” we say, or, “No, that’s not his style.” But Mary Gaitskill, the author of The Mare, is interested in the moments when behavior becomes incompatible with one’s broad sense of who a person seems to be, for better or worse. In a conversation for this series, we discussed a passage from Anna Karenina where both Anna and her husband surprise readers with uncharacteristic generosity and depth of spirit—though, when the moment passes, we’re left to wonder what was real. We discussed why fictional characters convince readers most when they behave unrealistically, and the way that hidden selves take shelter behind each public face.
In Mary Gaitskill’s fiction, characters often live emotional and sexual double lives. In stories like “Secretary,” which was adapted into a film with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and “A Romantic Weekend,” strait-laced characters try out sadomasochistic roles behind closed doors; in thrillers like “The Other Place” and “The Girl on the Plane,” normal-seeming men confide their brutal sexual urges. The Mare explores a different kind of private place. It features a foster mother who’s reckoning with her decision to take in an impoverished Brooklyn child, Velvet, for the summer, and explores the unexpected force with which she starts to feel like a “real” mother, even though the outside world feels otherwise. Meanwhile, Velvet’s classes with an abuse-scarred horse unlock something hidden in her, too. “Being on the mare happened on another planet, someplace beautiful but with outer space all around it,” she says. “I couldn’t even tell it to anybody.”