Monday, March 26, 2007

Booklog: Veronica, Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill
Vintage Contemporaries Trade Paperback, 257 pages

I picked this book up knowing only two things: that author Gaitskill was the author of "Bad Behavior", the story that was eventually turned into the film Secretary, and that Veronica was about a nonsexual relationship between two women. I figured it would be a sort of art-lit feminist work with frank discussions of sexuality and with a sort of "New Yorker" sensibility to it.

It was all that, and more besides. Alison is our viewpoint character, and in a more-or-less reliable-narrator fashion, she leads us through first her present reality as a has-been model who cleans the home/office of her friend David for a few dollars, and who has hepatitis and an arm that gives her stabbing pains whenever she tries to use it. She has a sort of vaguely interconnected life from the people who surround her, but seems isolated from the world nonetheless -- she is acquantainces with her neighbor, for instance, but they never seem to discuss the illness they share or the lives they lead.

Gaitskill writes the novel in a sort of vignette style, in which many sections are less than a page long and few are more than a half-dozen pages, with stories of Alison's past and present. We meet many of the important persons in her life that way, and eventually the name "Veronica" starts to become more and more prominent. As Alison tells us of her days as a model in Paris with an abusive boyfriend, then of moving back to the States and trying to go to secretarial school, she moves closer and closer to the present day of the novel, and we see more and more of her personality. Towards the last hundred pages or so of the book, Veronica begins to take more-or-less center stage, and we see her final days in the early days of the AIDS scare (the time frame is fuzzy, but is sometime in the early eighties) as Alison becomes a low-rent model and music video girl.

Veronica is portrayed as feisty and hotblooded even before her illness, but with a death sentence looming over her she becomes a spitfire. The relationship between Veronica and Alison is never really "warm", but each gains something from the experience of knowing the other, and the "reality" of Veronica's illness and eventual death are played thematically against the fakery of the modeling industry. Despite the great writing and well-conceived imagery that Gaitskill brings to these themes, she subtly warns us against taking our own understanding too seriously, by always making Veronica's illness stand up against that same flowery language like a concrete wall -- any "meaning" that we think we find in death is always more abstract and meaningless than the reality of that death itself.

This is a very good book towards the end, although it seems a bit formless at times and insufferably insular towards the beginning. Gaitskill has a clear command of language and metaphor that is worth reading, and the portions towards the end dealing directly with Veronica's death and understated and haunting. It's a bit outside my comfort zone, but it was definitely worth the extra effort.

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