Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill

I’ve finished my second book on my Summer Reading ChallengeVeronica, by the great Mary Gaitskill.

Here are some of the many posts I’ve written about her, marvelous writer:


Mary Gaitskill

Happiness (and the comments to that post are great, Gaitskill fans!)

A birthday post

Veronica is a novel – it’s about two women – Alison (the narrator), who was a teenage runaway turned high-fashion model – and her friend Veronica – a blowsy fierce middle-aged woman, whose boyfriend is bisexual – who eventually gives Veronica AIDS. I first encountered Gaitskill with her knock-one-out-of-the-park debut – the short story collection Bad Behavior: Stories. Her first novel is called Two Girls Fat and Thin – and I read it, and honestly remember almost nothing about it – while I can remember certain scenes from stories in Bad Behavior word for word. I should go back and read Two Girls Fat and Thin. I then read, last year, Gaitskill’s second short story collection Because they wanted to – and ate up every word. Some of her stories (especially “The Blanket”) move me to tears. But there was something in Veronica that left me cold – and I would imagine that a couple years from now I wouldn’t remember a bit of it – just like I don’t remember a bit of Two Girls Fat and Thin. It makes me wonder if short stories are Gaitskill’s true milieu. Like I believe is the case with Lorrie Moore – one of the greatest short story writers ever. I haven’t read any of Moore’s novels – I think there are two – so I may be wrong in this. I’m just saying that I have rarely read anything more perfect than Moore’s collection Birds of America. She is a MASTER. And Gaitskill is a master too. But, to me, there was something lacking in Veronica. I have to think a bit more upon it.

One of the things that occurred to me is this:

Gaitskill is at her best (meaning: better than anybody else) when she hones in on the specific. The people she writes about – from the beginning – are very often nasty selfish weird little people. You don’t LIKE her characters. That’s not the point. Reminds me of Tommy Lee Jones’ point about playing villains – and whether or not an actor needs to LIKE the character he plays. Jones says, “You don’t need to like the character. But you do need to want to WATCH the character.” I can’t look away from Gaitskill’s people. Some of it does read like a traffic accident, and I’m rubber-necking by. She’s an entryway into a world peripheral to mine, a world that has occasionally touched my own – a world of sex clubs and strippers and whores – not whores meaning “promiscuous” – but whores meaning “sex for money”. She writes about girls who strip as they go through art school. She writes about S&M – people who get off on pain, who yearn to go to their limits of endurance … and yet why? Is it loneliness? Love? What are these people looking for as they beg strangers to whip them, or piss on them – or whatever. The movie Secretary is based on one of Gaitskill’s stories – and while it was domesticated up a bit (hard to believe – but not if you’ve read Gaitskill’s actual stuff) – and made into a kind of touching love story … the grain of truth remains. The lead character accepts the spankings … for the first time in her life, it gives her purpose, makes her feel needed, necessary. The point is not to find oneself for these people. The point is to LOSE oneself. Anyway, I could go on and on. Gaitskill knows what she’s talking about here – this is her topic. I don’t know much about her life story, and I won’t make any guesses, just because I have read her work. I do know she was a teenage runaway, and did work as a prostitute for a while. There is a strong sense of authenticity in her work – but more than that: this woman is a kick-ass writer, fearless – It takes your breath away. There are no tidy endings, no morals … But what she does do is she LOOKS, she sees, and she TELLS. She’s so very good in the details.

My issue with Veronica is not with the writing. But it seems to me that she was going for something universal here, and I just don’t think that that is Gaitskill’s particular gift. Not that I don’t relate to some of her characters – I always do – it’s not a freak show, after all. These people – the addicts and runaways and whores and wanderers – all have something in them that connects them to the human race. I cannot look at them and say, “That, is YOU, over there, and has nothing to do with ME.” But she remains honed in on the specifics, the details – what their apartments look like, how they eat, how they talk, what they say when they do talk … She doesn’t worry so much about a message, or about being universal. And I felt a certain drive in her in Veronica to push upward, into some kind of universal truth. For the majority of the book, Alison – who is now a sad middle-aged woman, with Hepatitis C, her beauty gone … takes a walk in a redwood forest – and ponders the past. We go back and forth in time. And I felt that the past sections were far more vivid – the present-day sections involved Alison looking at the moss, and the trees, and the running streams … and I felt that Gaitskill was going for something here, something that did not quite work, for me. However, my point here reminds me of the quote I linked to above, from a review of Bad Behavior, a quote I love so much:

In “The Wrong Thing”, the novella that concludes the collection, Ms. Gaitskill seems to be striving toward an uncertain goal, and (like her narrator, Susan) she isn’t entirely successful. She’s slightly out of her depth — which is exactly where she needs to be; it’s the only place she’s going to make the discoveries that will take her up to the next level and the levels beyond. Once an artist of her command relinquishes enough control to let her brilliance lead her where it wants to, anything is possible.

YES. She is not “entirely successful” in Veronica either – a bit “out of her depth” – at least in the meandering “look at the moss on the trees and ponder the universe” sections. But I agree with that reviewer that this, on the edge, and not entirely successful, is “exactly where she needs to be”. She is a writer who takes risks. Not just for the sake of taking risks. Not for the sake of being shocking, although some of her stories are shocking. She is not in it for the shock. Having known people who live in the world she describes – the underworld, I guess you’d say – I can say that she gets it right. Much in this world would shock the comfortable middle class. Gaitskill lives on the sidelines, her characters do not participate in society in that full and open way … they are shadow people, tunnel people, forgotten – and many times, have no concept whatsoever of the things many others take for granted. There’s a moment in Vernonica where a boyfriend of Alison’s breaks up with her – because he has met someone else. He wants to be fair to Alison, so he comes clean. Gaitskill’s description of this conversation is brief, stark – and the main thing you come away with is the realization that Alison does not understand his sense of honor. She recognizes that he is behaving honorably – but instead of appreciating it, it embarrasses and shocks her. This is a corrupt world, full of corrupt people. Alison would love to participate in a full life – where things like love, and kindness, and honor are expected, and also understood. She is not so completely gone that she SCORNS such things … but she certainly knows that she is left out. And that her boyfriend is better off without her. But then – much later in the book – Gaitskill pulls one of her jujitsu moves – and there is a moment of pure and fierce love … and it was enough to bring tears to my eyes. Gaitskill is not cynical – that’s what makes her so fascinating as a writer. You would think she would be, what with her topic – and what she has seen. She is not. But it is an intense and bleak view of the world, pared down, raw. Hard to take.

And for me – all of that is clear when she stays in the details. The “universal” is not for her. At least not when it is gone at directly. Some writers can do that – it is their sensibility, how they see things. Gaitskill’s gift is most clear when she is in the muck, describing what she sees.

Example from Veronica:

Because we sold flowers outside bars and go-go clubs, prostitutes were some of our best customers; the nice ones bossed their johns into buying from us. Most of them weren’t beautiful girls, but they had a special luster, like something you could barely see shining at the bottom of a deep well. They treated us like sisters, and we were tempted to join them when men came around looking for “models” – which everybody knew meant stripper or whore. Mostly, we would indignantly say no, but sometimes somebody would say yes. I said yes a couple of times. Why I picked those times to say yes, I don’t know. One was an old fat man with a spotted face and pale, aggrieved eyes. He ran some kind of business, maybe postcards or comic books. He leaned on a counter in the back room of his store and blinked his pale eyes while I took off my clothes. When I was naked, he looked awhile and then asked if he could look at me from behind. I said okay; he walked around me in a circle and then went back behind the counter again. “You have beautiful hips and legs,” he said. “Beautiful shoulders, too. But your breasts are small and they’re not that good.” He talked to me about the kind of work I might do while I put my clothes back on.

“You mean porn?”

“Sure, we do some porn. There’s more money for the girls that way. But we do seminude art, as well.” His eyes became more aggrieved. “Do you care what the other girls do?”

I shrugged. Outside the window, electric music corkscrewed through the air. If he hadn’t insulted my boobs, I might have tried it out. But I just said bye and left.

Like a cat in the dark, your whisker touched something the wrong way and you backed out. Except sometimes it was a trap baited with something so enticing, you pushed your face in anyway. Once when I was out with my basket, a short man with a square torso said, “Hey, hot shit – you should come work for me.” He bounced a rubber ball on the pavement, caught it, and bounced it again. “I’m a pimp.” His face was like lava turned into cold rock. But inside him, it was still running hot; you could smell it: pride, rage, and shame boiling and ready to spill out his cock and scald you. I stared in fear. He just laughed and bounced his ball; he knew that for somebody what he had was the perfect enticement.

And then there’s this – one of the many sections of the book that describes the world of high fashion, and this image really really struck me:

At a magazine party, I sat at a table with the most famous model of the year, a seventeen-year-old whose laughing face was a fleshy description of pleasure, satiety and engagement that engaged at one decibel again and again. Photographers pitilessly filled her with their radiant needles until she was riddled with invisible holes and joyfully pouring radiance out each one. As an afterthought, a photographer turned and photographed me. My picture would appear later in a magazine society page. In the photo, I ws sitting next to the young writer who had briefly occupied the chair next to me when it was vacated by a columnist. He sat down to ask me if I’d ever seen Modigliani’s paintings. “Because you’re lilke a beautiful Modigliani painting,” he said. “You should go see the exhibit at the Metropolitan.” I waited for him to ask me to go with him, but he didn’t. He had intense eyebrows and hazel eyes with bright changeable streaks glowing emberlike through the solid color. His name was Patrick. He gave the impression of a fast current that you might ride on, laughing. We talked about nothing and then he got up and left. I waited a very pleasant moment before getting up, too. Six months later his friends woud ignore me and sting me with weapons made of the finest jealousy and gossamer contempt. A woman writing a book on the history of troll dolls would look at me and talk loudly about the trivial nature of beauty and fashion. A short actress would turn her back on me while I was speaking and put her arms around Patrick. I would break a wineglass in a hostess’s bathroom and walk on it until the splinters were unseeable. I would change my mind and guiltily mop the glass with a wet towel. “Alison?” Patrick would pound on the door. But that night, he proudly introduced me. That night, I said, “I’m a model,” and it came out shy and shining at the same time. People smiled and parted, and allowed me to enter the social grid.

Or this section, when Alison leaves a party with Jamie, a guy she just met. I love how Gaitskill, in 2 or 3 words – can call up an entire personality.

We left the party and went for a walk. On the bottoms of his severely pointed shoes, Jamie wore cleats, which clicked loudly on the pavement. The only people I’d ever known to wear cleats were middle-school boys, who wore them so they could kick hard and make a lot of noise when they walked. I asked Jamie why he wore them, and he said, “I just like them.” His words were modest, but they whirred with secret importance. He said everything that way. The British monarchy was very important; Prince Charles’s recent marriage was particularly so. Ornette Coleman was the only good jazz musician. He approved of men’s shoes on women. He approved of Buckminster Fuller and Malcolm McLaren. He approved of Bow Wow Wow.

His opinions were frivolous, fierce, and exact. He worked in a smal graphics plant that made logos and labels for sundry products. But he was as proud and particular as any Parisian playboy. His favoirte logo was the brand name of a line of white paper sacks commonly used by small grocers; I had never noticed, but TORNADO was printed in brown letters with a vibrant round T at the top of each bag. “It’s so elegant,” he said, and it was.

Brilliant. So clear. You can’t argue with such clarity. It just IS. And the last 3 words of that excerpt – the “and it was” – is typical Gaitskill. It’s what makes her so wonderful. You may be lulled into a false sense of superiority towards Jamie, you may think: God what an ass, how pretentious … You may hate his type. But Gaitskill will never go there with you, in your judgment, she is more interested in being on the inside of the experience. Jamie may be an ass, I mean – he’s wearing cleats to a party … but then he raves about a logo he likes … and Alison realizes how right he is. That his eye is, in fact, good. And of such small moments are connections made at 2 o’clock in the morning in this dirty lonely city. I’ve been there. That’s just how it is.

The book loses much in the present-day sections, although I can see what she is going for. It is elegiac – and you do feel, by the end, that Alison has lost much … her past is far more vivid than her present … Yet the writing is less DETAILED in the present-day sections. It doesn’t have that spark of danger, which is one of the reasons i find Gaitskill so compelling. Her work feels on the edge. There is something dangerous about life, and it shows in her writing.

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4 Responses to Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill

  1. Ted says:

    you’ve GOT to read Moore’s Who will Run the Frog Hospital. It should be on my favorite books list. I guess I should add Gaitskill to my list – huh? Somehow she has been completely off my radar.

  2. red says:

    Ted – read Bad Behavior. Short stories. Unbelievable.

    I have all of Moore’s books – just haven’t gotten to Frog Hospital yet. But Birds of America is STUNNING. She’s one of my all-time faves. I love her funniness – but then she’ll pull back the veil and choke your heart with tragedy. She’s so so good!!

  3. red says:

    When I read Lorrie Moore, I realize how BAD most short stories are. She shows everybody up – I think: “Now THAT is how it’s done!”

    But pick up Bad Behavior!! I think Gaitskill was 23 or 24 when it came out – it’s startlingly good.

  4. RTG says:

    Gaitskill is truly maginficent. In some ways, you write like her – in that microscopic detail -though your subjects are generally much brighter. It’s always a pleasure. Both you and Gaitskill, I mean. Always a pleasure to read you both.

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