Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica

veronica-2005 I finished this book about a week ago and have thought of it off and on since then, and I’m still not entirely sure what I want to say about it. There were times when I thought it was incredibly moving and insightful, times when I thought it dragged a bit, times when I loved what it had to say about families, and times when I got annoyed because I couldn’t keep the minor characters straight. I suppose ultimately I don’t think this is a perfect book, but it offered a lot ot think about.

The story is a harsh one, and I was drawn to it for that reason. It has a tone I don’t often find in women writers (although I won’t pretend to have done an exhaustive survey) — blunt, dark, bleak, and open about the harsher and seedier aspects of life. It’s not a hopeless book, but it’s one that won’t let you forget how much people can suffer. I wouldn’t want to read sad books like this one all the time, but now and then I find I want to read someone who looks directly at the harsher, uglier sides of life.

The first-person narrator is Alison, a woman in her forties who ekes a living out of part-time jobs. While she once was beautiful, the hard life she has lived has worn her down, and she now has hepatitis and suffers from a damaged arm that gets in the way of the cleaning job she tries to hold on to. The novel follows Alison through the course of one day as she walks to work and then to a friend’s house, and finally to the woods just outside her city in California. Lengthy flashbacks tell the story of Alison’s youth and young adulthood.

Alison became a model at a very young age and found herself swept up into a world where beautiful young women care so much about having great careers and becoming famous super-models that they are willing to do whatever it takes to live out their dreams, and male agents and photographers take full advantage of all the opportunities for sexual exploitation this provides. It’s a life full of money, glamour, drugs, parties, and casual sex. Alison heads to France where her modeling career really takes off, as a fabulously wealthy and powerful agent takes her on as his girlfriend. Her family back home in New Jersey has little idea what Alison has gotten herself into, but they are too passive and caught up in their own troubles to do anything to bring Alison home.

Alison’s meteoric rise is followed by a catastrophic fall as her boyfriend rejects her and she returns home to New Jersey to become a student again and try to turn her life around. She moves to New York to work at temp jobs and to try to work her way back into the modeling world, with only partial success. It’s in one of her temp jobs that she meets Veronica, a woman significantly older than Alison is, and who bewilders Alison with her brash attitude and her outlandish taste in clothing. The two become friends, improbably, and although Alison doesn’t quite understand why she is drawn to Veronica and she sometimes fails to be a good friend to her, the two stay in touch. When Alison finds out Veronica has AIDS, she becomes even more important in her life.

Veronica seems an unlikely character to name the book after, since there are long sections of the book that don’t concern her at all, and we aren’t introduced to her until after we have been reading for a while. But it’s Alison’s friendship with Veronica that provides a center to her story; she is a question the story picks at again and again as Alison tries to figure out what Veronica has meant to her. From her perspective as a more mature woman looking back on her life, it turns out that Veronica has meant a great deal.

There is a lot of beauty in the writing here; Gaitskill describes Alison’s habit of thinking about her life through music particularly well, and although she is distanced from her father, this is something they share. For both of them music is a way of trying to communicate the longings they can’t find words to express. The entire book feels like an effort to express those things that are so hard to put into words. Alison tries to understand the experiences that have shaped her life, but sometimes the most she can do is to ask questions, to speculate, and to marvel at what has happened.

At times the pacing felt uneven, and the minor characters come and go without much definition and sometimes without much interest, but still, there is much to enjoy and contemplate here.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

8 responses to “Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica

  1. What an interesting review, Dorothy! I often wonder about bleakness in books, whence it comes. Is it a punishment for some overreaching dream of glory that preceded it, or is it a philosophy of life steeped in pessimism, or is it just a fascination with the dark side as being somehow more ‘real’ than the light? It’s probably impossible to sort these strands out in a text and perhaps some of them naturally engender others. But it sort of intrigues me!

  2. This sounds like a book you don’t want to read if you are feeling at all depressed. But at the same time it sounds interesting too. Life isn’t all sunshine and roses. That the book is named after a character who isn’t in the book all that much but yet who has a big impact on the main character is interesting. I suppose the minor characters in our own lives end up playing a larger role than we’d ever anticipated. Very interesting!

  3. It’s funny, because from what I’ve gathered from reading your blog, it seemed to me unlikely that you would read and appreciate this book. Maybe I’m mistaken too, but it’s great to see you pushing boundaries and try something new, even if it’s bleak.

  4. I’ve had this book for years on my shelf! It does sound sad but still it intrigues me. I enjoy reading about friendships and how they shape our lives so I think this would be a good exploration of that subject.

  5. I’ve heard the occasional very interesting review of this novel over the years, and yours is no exception. Usually drug-world, meteoric-rise-and-fall type stories are kind of a turnoff for me, but this sounds more nuanced and thoughtful than most, and also uglier…which is somehow more appealing, for reasons I can’t really explain.

    Anyway, thanks for the reminder about this novel.

  6. I’m not sure why, but I’ve been intrigued by this book for a while now. Of course I’ve yet to pick it up as I think you really have to be in the right mood for it. Life isn’t always success and happiness (all too often it isn’t as a matter of fact), so I can appreciate it when an author chooses to write about it in this way, though it does make for heavy reading. As always you write about it wonderfully and make me want to go and pull out my copy now!

  7. Ann

    The Book isn’t one I know, but for some reason the author’s name is ringing bells. Has she written anything else? I must go and explore and see if I’ve read something else by her. I like the idea of characters who understand life through music. Another one for the tbr pile, I fear.

  8. Litlove — interesting questions! I know from a brief skim of Gaitskill’s biography that her own life hasn’t been easy and so some of the darkness seems to come from her experience of life. But, of course, having had a hard life doesn’t mean one will write bleak fiction. I wonder what it says about me that I am occasionally drawn to this type of book? I think I have my own lingering feeling that the dark side of life is more real than the light.

    Stefanie — what to read when depressed or sad is an interesting question, I think, because sometimes bleak books can make me feel better rather than worse. I think knowing someone else has thought about the dark side of life and has experienced hard things can make me feel less isolated. But I know not everyone responds to books that way, and I don’t always respond that way myself.

    Smithereens — now that’s an interesting thing, that it’s surprising I’d be drawn to something bleak. I suppose it doesn’t happen to me all that often, or maybe I don’t draw attention to it, but it’s been a part of my reading life for a while. I’m fascinated that that aspect of me doesn’t really show through.

    Iliana — Veronica is definitely interesting about friendship — about the good it does, and also how the narrator fails at it. It’s a complicated friendship, and that’s one of the things I liked about the book.

    Emily — I’d definitely call this book nuanced and thoughtful; it’s not flashy or glamorous in any way and if anything would make a person want to stay far away from the world it describes. It shows just how ugly and horrible the world of glamour and drugs can be.

    Danielle — thank you! I had been interested in the book for a long time too, and it took me a while to get to it — there’s something a little intimidating about it. I think the interest for me is that Gaitskill has a reputation for writing about dangerous or forbidden subjects (drug use, sexuality, etc.), and of course I was curious. I’d certainly be curious to know what you think!

    Ann — Gaitskill has a few other books out, although Veronica is her most famous title, I’m pretty sure. She has interesting titles: “Bad Behavior,” “Two Girls, Fat and Thin.” Gaitskill has very interesting things to say about music; it’s not the central theme, but it’s a very important recurring idea.

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