Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill

As I was reading Veronica, I often compared it to some of Robert Mapplethorpe's erotic photographs,
especially those in his S&M series -- from a technical perspective, they are irreproachable, but the images are still disturbing. Likewise, Mary Gaitskill's prose is incongruously beautiful as she gives us a narrator who is, for the most part, spiritually vacuous, moving numbly through her decadent world.

Is it a case of style over substance?  Somewhat. I'm not a reader who requires likeable characters, high drama or happy endings, but apart from admiring Mary Gaitskill's talent with words, I struggled to make a connection with this book.

The eponymous Veronica plays a relatively minor role in the story, but then, no one seems to have a significant emotional impact on Alison, the narrator. Having run away from home as a teenager to work as a model, Alison is terminally jaded.  She meets Veronica, a middle-aged editor, in a temp agency, and they fall into a flimsy, insubstantial friendship.  As she narrates Veronica's decline and death from AIDS, which she had contracted from her bisexual boyfriend, Alison's tone becomes almost clinical. As someone whose own life is drifting downstream into oblivion, she -- seemingly without irony -- dispenses advice to Veronica, advice that she certainly doesn't apply to herself.
I snap open the umbrella and remember the last time I visited Veronica. She served me brownies in pink wrapping paper, fancy cheese, and sliced fruit she was too sick to eat. I remember the time I said, "I don't think you love yourself. You need to learn to love yourself." Veronica was silent for a long moment. Then she said, "I think love is overrated. My parents loved me. And it didn't do any good."
I think I'd rather Veronica had narrated the book.
She was a plump thirty-seven-year-old with bleached-blond hair. She wore tailored suits in mannish plaids with matching bow ties, bright red lipstick, false red fingernails, and mascara that gathered in intense beads on the ends of her eyelashes. Her loud voice was sensual and rigid at once, like plastic baubles put together in rococo shapes. It was deep but could quickly become shrill. You could hear her from across the room, calling everyone, even people she hated, "hon": "Excuse me, hon, but I'm very well acquainted with Jimmy Joyce and the use of the semicolon." She proofread like a cop with a nightstick.
Alison had run away, not from an abusive or neglectful household, but from a stolid, middle-class one. After a bout of bumming around San Francisco in typical, seedy, unemployed teenager mode, she goes home to New Jersey for a while, until the boredom sets in again.
Van Cliburn played Tchaikovsky in the next room; in the dining room, the TV was on mute. The months in San Francisco were folded up into a bright tiny box and put down somewhere amid the notices and piles of coupons. I was blended into the electrical comfort of home.
When she needs another excitement fix, Alison talks her parents into letting her go to work for a modelling agency in Paris. Glamour? Sophistication? Hardly, and she's too naive to know the difference.
We met for champagne and omelettes in a sunny bistro with bright-colored cars honking outside. He talked about the Rolling Stones and his six-year-old daughter, after whom he had named the agency Celeste. He asked if I wanted children. I said, "No." He grabbed my nose between two knuckles and squeezed it. The omelettes came heaped on white plates with blanched asparagus. He hadn't kissed me yet. He spread his slim legs and tucked a cloth napkin into his shirt with an air of appetite. I wanted badly to touch him. Inside its daintiness, the asparagus was acrid and deep. He said, "The first thing we need to do is get you a Swiss bank account. All the smart girls have one. First, you don't have to pay taxes that way. Then they invest it for you. Your money will double, triple. You should see!" I loved him and he obviously loved me. Love like in the James Bond movies, where the beautiful sexy girl loves James but tries to kill him anyway.
The beautiful sexy girl never kills James Bond, of course, and the agent, when he dumps Alison, sends her off without the contents of that Swiss bank account, which he had opened in the agency's name.

Nor does the beautiful sexy girl intimidate Veronica, who, in a moment of brutal clarity, tells it like it is.
There was a wondering silence. Veronica smoked with her lips in a sideways purse so she could stare at me as she inhaled; her eyes flared with each tiny facial twist. "How did you get into modeling to begin with?"
"By fucking a nobody catalog agent who grabbed my crotch." I didn't have to be embarrassed or make up something nice, because Veronica was nobody. My disdain was so habitual, I didn't notice it. But she did. She said, "Every pretty girl has a story like that, hon. I had that prettiness. I have those stories. I don't have to do that anymore, though. It's my show now." And she turned into a movie star, strutting past me while I gawked.
Alison's superficiality seems to smack her in the face again and again, yet her assessments of other people never go beyond skin-deep and never take into account that beauty might exist in a woman who is not fit material for a magazine cover. After Veronica's death, David, the man who adopted her cat, relates a dream in which Veronica appeared, and in which "her poise and intellectual grace were visible".  Alison, moved by the image in this dream, phones her sister Sara to discuss it.
When I got off the phone with David, I called Sara to tell her about it. I don't know why. When I finished describing the dream, I said, "And that's what Veronica was really like, under all the ugliness and bad taste. It's so sad, I can't stand it. She'd gotten so stunted and twisted up, she came out looking like this ridiculous person with bad hair, when she was meant to be sophisticated and brilliant. Like in the dream."
Sara was silent, and in the silence I felt her furrow her brow. "I thoughts she was sophisticated and brilliant, Alison. I thought her hair was nice."
In the end, Alison sums it up like this:
I sank down into darkness and lived among the demons for a long, long time. I became one of them. But I was not saved by an innocent girl or an angel crying in heaven. I was saved by another demon, who looked on me with pity and so became human again. And because I pitied her in turn, I was allowed to become human, too.  
By that time, though, I'd lost all trust in Alison. I don't believe she was saved by another demon, because I don't believe Veronica was one.  I question whether she was saved, human once more, at all.

1 comment:

  1. I think I would empathise more with Veronica as well, and don't see her to be a demon. She definitely sounds a lot more human than the cold, self-absorbed Alison.


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