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Mary Gaitskill's Latest, The Mare, Is More Than a Great Ride


The Mare is an impressive novel, a real accomplishment, not least because Mary Gaitskill tells a very simple story here, almost a fable. But just to describe the overall arc of the story is to leave out the terrific intelligence the author shows at every step, in particular her feel for differences in personality and stages of life. The tale concerns Velvet, a young Latina, not quite 12 when the novel begins, who drifts into a summer Fresh Air Fund program and finds herself in upstate New York, at first a casual visitor to a childless couple who are more or less adrift themselves. The wife, Ginger, was once an artist in New York City and is now basically aging in the country; the husband, Paul, is an indifferent professor with a family from an earlier marriage, who is wary of his wife’s charitable project and her motives in taking it on. By chance, Ginger brings Velvet to visit a nearby horse farm, where the girl finds herself instinctively attuned to the personalities and inner states of the animals, themselves wary and violent but not wholly unreachable, either. Many twists and turns follow before the inevitable and, it must be said, superbly rendered triumph, with the novel unfolding as much in the urban jungle of Brooklyn as it does in shabby barns and modest homes upstate. Told from varying first-person points of view—largely Ginger’s and Velvet’s—reminiscent of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the narrative becomes simply electric as the book progresses. Gaitskill’s fidelity to the characters is very well thought out, and their voices, their inner monologues, grow increasingly layered and nuanced. Rarely does one find a novel so attuned to the changeable mess our emotional lives often present, while being so sharp in description, so incisive. The story does risk showing too many predictable contrasts: the diffident white middle-aged professionals in the country, the fiery Latins, mostly teenagers, in the projects. But the intelligence with which Gaitskill elaborates upon her characters’ inner states renders the symbolic aspects secondary and unproblematic. The language is always just right (not easy to achieve when the speakers are young and/or illiterate), and the insights into personality and the world each character faces are consistent and consistently plausible. Gaitskill handles two themes—challenges, really—in an especially impressive way. First, most difficult and most central to the story, is Velvet’s harmony with the horses; it’s unexpected, then irresistible, then focused on one horse in particular, which is spirited but damaged (naturally). This is dangerous territory: a wounded but noble creature and the adolescent who can sense its pain. But in these scenes, the author wisely takes a page from D.H. Lawrence and becomes impressively poetic, never reductive. She trusts in an impressionistic language of the emotions and uses the sped-up rhythms of speech to nail down Velvet’s sense of affinity and make it credible. Her thoughts when she finds herself for the first time galloping dangerously fast through a field are both highly personal and wildly cinematic. It is a great feat of writing. Second is the portrait of Ginger. While Velvet is, to be sure, a great construction, she’s an adolescent on the cusp of change; her material is intrinsically dramatic. But Ginger, inert yet seething with soft love for this girl, and confusion and bitterness about so much else, is a harder project—and is beautifully realized. Gaitskill has always understood certain sorts of emotional turmoil very well and has a great gift for seeing how in the midst of the craziest passion that won’t leave you alone there can often be an element of deadness or self-disgust. In her earlier work, including Bad Behavior and Two Girls, Fat and Thin, the emotional turmoil is typically that of sexual obsession. The Mare too contains some sex; no Gaitskill novel could be otherwise. Velvet is very close to it, as the object of all the typical attention you can imagine, and, in her own teenage way, she falls in love unhappily with a beautiful, doomed older boy. Paul has an affair that, faithful to his AA discipline, he tells Ginger about, with predictably unhappy consequences. When Ginger returns to her AA group in the city, she sort of takes up with a past lover, now worn and middle-aged, who caused her fierce unhappiness many years ago. But on the whole, sex is a background passion in The Mare. And the novel is stronger for it. Gaitskill instead turns her attention to emotions less given to outward drama but just as vivid all the same. Ginger, in her late 40s, becomes increasingly insecure about her sense of herself as an artist and unsure about her connection to Velvet or her motives for pursuing it. Her mix of well-earned self-doubt, intelligence about others and a stubborn determination, now at this late stage, not to let something so promising pass her by is a masterpiece of psychological acuity. It is very impressive to see Gaitskill present such a well-drawn, emotionally vivid female character when the passions in play are neither young nor romantic. Carefully constructed, consistently insightful, unapologetically (and successfully) dramatic when it needs to be, this is an excellent novel indeed. Photo © Derek Shapton

by Steven Ross

May 2, 2016

Flick Pick: A Bigger Splash


Is it just me, or has Ralph Fiennes finally found his niche? After a long career of super-serious (but nonetheless incredible) roles, the British actor has begun testing the comedy waters—first in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and now with Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino’s dark comedy A Bigger Splash. Guadagnino’s film takes us on a cinematic vacation to Pantelleria, a dreamy island off the coast of Sicily. We are introduced to Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), a retired rock star hiding from the world with her younger boyfriend, Paul (Matthias Shoenaerts), as she recovers from throat surgery that has rendered her mostly mute. Ambushing their retreat is Harry (Fiennes), Marianne’s rambunctious record producer and former flame, and his newly discovered (and very attractive) daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), who captures Paul’s attention. Harry shatters all hope of the couple’s quiet retreat; he makes advances on Marianne and confesses his love for her. Marianne begins to doubt her recent decisions, and old aspects of her life intrigue her again, much to Paul’s dismay. To further complicate matters, Harry is revealed to be the one who introduced Paul and Marianne years back, and he lords this fact over Paul. Of the film’s many marvels, perhaps the greatest is Swinton’s performance. Her ability to convey deep emotion using few words (remember, she can’t really speak) is astounding; her facial expressions say everything her character feels, as Marianne is torn between the two men. This is Guadagnino’s fourth film with Swinton (their fifth collaboration, Suspiria, comes out in 2017), and the chemistry is apparent. Guadagnino’s first English-language film, A Bigger Splash is based on Jacques Deray’s 1969 psychological thriller La Piscine (The Swimming Pool) and features the vibrant European style featured in his previous success, the Golden Globe–nominated I Am Love (also starring Swinton). The movie premiered to critical praise at last year’s Venice Film Festival and is sure to meet the same reception from audiences around the world. Check out the trailer below, and make sure to watch A Bigger Splash when it opens in theaters next Wednesday, May 4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRQioAYem3o Photos: Jack English/Twentieth Century Fox

by Stephanie Adams

Apr 29, 2016

Write. Play. Love. How One New Yorker Makes the Most of Her Micro-Lifestyle


We all know the stereotype of urban ascetics. They resist material luxury. They make their own yogurt, churn their own butter. They live simply and self-sustainably in a small studio with a foldout couch or air mattress. They have no conventional responsibilities, no goals beyond graduation or the next gallery show. They are single artists in the morning of their life. They are not middle-aged parents.  Meet Emily Duff—a 26-year West Village resident who lives with her husband, two children, a dog and a dozen guitars in a 340-square-foot apartment on Hudson Street. “I’m really happy in this tiny little space,” says Duff, who turns 50 this year. “I can’t imagine my life any other way.” The Duff family apartment (photos by Gabriel Rosenberg) What others would call constrictions, Duff calls creative compromises: Her shower is a phone booth–size alcove next to the kitchen sink. Her door-free bedroom triples as a dining and living room. Her kids—a boy and a girl—share a bunk bed in a room the size of a walk-in closet. Of all the limitations inherent in this compact living, only one really bothers her: “I haven’t had a bathtub to lie in in 26 years.” Duff has become a master of spatial resourcefulness. But what makes her micro-lifestyle even more staggering is how it compares with her previous digs. Before moving into her current apartment, she lived alone in a 2,000-square-foot Tribeca loft—a perk of her employment as the personal assistant to actor Harvey Keitel and his girlfriend Lorraine Bracco, fresh off her breakout role in Goodfellas. “As Lorraine and Harvey’s assistant, I was working as everything. I was a cook, I was looking after her kids, I was reviewing scripts,” she says. Bracco bought Duff her first computer, a gift to encourage her writing. Duff was 23 and hobnobbing with all the Village habitués. She jammed with Rosanne Cash. She traded mixtapes with Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed. When she applied for the apartment she lives in now, she used Robert De Niro as a reference. The 1,660-square-foot downsize to Hudson Street followed Duff’s stint with Bracco and Keitel. To sustain herself in the mid-1990s, she played local gigs, managed a recording studio on Gansevoort Street (through her connection with Cash) and was a chef at an Australian restaurant. Just down the street from it, Duff met her future husband, Skip (coincidentally, an Australian). She gave birth to their first child, Sylvia, now 11, in the post-9/11 baby boom; a son, Henry, followed three years later. A few years from now, her apartment will be inhabited by two angsty teenagers in bunk beds. “It might get harder when they’re older,” Duff concedes. “Or it might not. We’ll see.” When the walls start closing in, she loses herself in her music. An accomplished guitarist and songwriter, Duff has played in neighborhood venues for nearly 30 years. Today she heads the Emily Duff Band, a five-person outfit steeped in country-soul—“sweet-and-sour rock and roll,” as she describes it. Last month she headlined a show at Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side; next month she opens for Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle at City Winery. In her three decades in the Village, she has played just about everywhere. But like all things, her neighborhood—her home—is changing. “It used to be an area that you could afford, because it was all artists. Now my neighbors are celebrities and bankers, lawyers, rock stars,” she says. “They’re not my people anymore. I feel like the welfare mom of the West Village. The neighborhood has changed, and I have remained completely the same.” Her brand of urban asceticism isn’t entirely a practice of self-discipline and abstinence; it’s about living simply and making the most of what you have. Today Duff raises her kids by the same principles that have guided her own life. Every night before bed, the whole family—Sylvia on keyboard, Henry on drums, Skip on bass and Emily on guitar—carves out a little space for peace in the bustle of New York City. The harmony is exultant. “I find my god,” says Duff, “in guitars and my kids.” She tells me all this over a pot of tea on a Thursday night. As I drain my cup, and my questions, and prepare to leave, her attention is drawn away. “I like this one of Sylvia’s,” she says, pointing to a piece of artwork on the fridge. “She had to do a still life, but she could only use 20 strokes.” I reply that it reminds me of the classic Dr. Seuss legend—when challenged to write a book using only 50 unique words, he wrote Green Eggs and Ham. “Exactly,” says Duff. “Art within restriction. If you can be happy within boundaries, you can be happy anywhere.” All photos of Emily Duff courtesy of Emily Duff

by Gabriel Rosenberg

Apr 28, 2016

Shirley MacLaine Is Still Sowing Her Wild Oats


It’s easy to dismiss Shirley MacLaine’s musings as the wacky nonsense of an offbeat celebrity—particularly when she relates tales of her past lives or declares her beliefs in outer space aliens visiting Earth from time to time, as she does in many of her recent best-sellers. But whether you buy into her spiritual travelogues or not, it’s impossible to ignore what a charismatic writer she is. MacLaine’s books mix provocative big ideas about human existence into astute discussions of real-world politics and behind-the-scenes descriptions of show business machinations drawn from her six-decade career as a Broadway dancer turned Hollywood star. Although her earliest books are still her best—they’re the most informative and political—MacLaine’s newest volume, Above the Line: My Wild Oats Adventure, is a diverting chronicle of the filming of her latest movie, the titular Wild Oats, and the water decompression therapy the octogenarian underwent afterward to relieve her neck pain. The therapy triggered her to imagine a fantastical journey back to the age of mythical Atlantis, on whose remnants, the Canary Islands, she had just been shooting the film. The islands are believed (by those who believe such things) to have been formed by the tops of Atlantis’s highest mountains, peaks altitudinous enough to have survived the great flood that engulfed the rest of the ancient city. Though the diehard rationalists among us may have difficulty following MacLaine on her “imaginative” journeys, no one can dispute the soundness of the lessons they teach her. This transformative Atlantis trip made her understand that fear is what allows people to be controlled, and she applies this truth to our current cultural climate with persuasive passion. Essentially, MacLaine’s book asks us to use the downfall of Atlantis—a civilization destroyed by its obsession with materialism and technology—as a lens to examine what may be infecting society today. While her premise is lofty, MacLaine’s bold honesty and stinging sarcasm make for wickedly entertaining reading. And much of what she proffers is strangely comforting, such as the notion that “all time exists simultaneously,” an idea that lessens the distress we may feel upon discovering that as we age we grow more interested in what happened in the past than in what’s going on currently. Also soothing to the soul is her story about gazing up at the stars when she was a kid and somehow knowing we aren’t alone in the universe. My favorite MacLaine insight is buried, ironically, amid comic anecdotes about the movie-shooting process, much of which for her, as a female lead, focuses on her physical appearance. With her usual incisive wit, MacLaine describes various mishaps involving wigs, costumes, makeup and the uncomfortable lifting tape used to diminish neck and facial wrinkles. While trying to fall asleep one night, she reviews a list of inspiring phrases she has collected over the years, sagely reminding us that we must always “look deeply into the appearance of things.” Photos: Everett Collection

by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Apr 27, 2016

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