Veronica, Mary Gaitskill’s fourth novel is somewhat different to the taut style of her shorter fiction. An exploration of the interconnection between surface beauty and inner cruelty, it is a meandering and more thoughtful book, which moves across decades to tell the story of its narrator Alison.
Once a former model, Alison is now in her late-forties and her life is in free fall. She has lost her looks, has hepatitis C and is scraping a living cleaning offices in California. She is addicted to codeine, courtesy of a shoulder injury sustained in a car crash and she cannot come to terms with the discrepancy between her glamourous life as a young model in Paris and the situation she finds herself in now. Alison is also tormented by thoughts of her unusual friendship with an older woman named Veronica, who died from AIDS – callously infected by her bisexual lover Duncan.
Given Alison’s bleak present, it is unsurprising that her thoughts constantly drift to the past. As she fights through her pain cleaning the offices of the wealthy, she reminisces on her time as a model. In Paris, she is both beguiled by the lifestyle she has been dropped into and horrified by the treatment of young women, including herself, at the hands of the older male photographers and agents. Her own ill-advised relationship with her agent brings about the disastrous end of her modelling career. She flees home to New Jersey and a safe office job in New York and despite knowing that she is in a safer and somewhat happier place, she still craves the superficial world of sexual attention and flippant cruelty.
Her friendship with Veronica fills some of the emptiness. Veronica is dramatic and unclassifiable, an overweight proof reader who acts like a star and is completely unself-conscious. Alison is attracted to her exuberant nature and her avant-garde lifestyle with all its attendant drama. Ultimately, she is drawn to Veronica’s self-destruction in which she sees echoes of her own experience.
We all came up out of the ground and took our forms. So much harder for us to have a form because we have one on the outside and too many inside. Depth, surface, power, fragility, direction, indirection, arrogance, servility, rocks, roots, grass, blossoms, dirt. We are a tangle of roots, a young branch, a flower, a moldy spore. You want to say, This is me; this is who I am. But you don’t even know what it is, or what it’s for.
Veronica is an interesting examination of the changing relationship between the outer and the inner self, and between the passing of time and the nature of memory. Gaitskill, always skilled at the depiction of interesting, unconventional women excels in this respect and the best parts of the novel explore the hunger and immediacy of being a young woman on the brink of something exciting. The 80s setting is also perfectly captured, particularly the depiction of the early onset of the AIDS epidemic.
Where it does not succeed is in the central relationship between Alison and Veronica, which always feels of the periphery of the novel, rather than taking centre stage. The unsentimental, almost cold nature of the narrative voice means that it is hard to engage emotionally in this unlikely friendship. The novel takes a while to find its footing (Veronica does not actually appear until over a third of the way through) and the meandering nature of the narrative makes for some pacing issues.
Still, Gaitskill’s prose is sharp and glittering and her themes of sex, power, independence and the manner in which friendships can cause as much pain as sexual relationships are all satisfyingly present. The book is driven by the notion that life is simultaneously beautiful and cruel, that one has to be accepted in order to appreciate the other, and its impressionistic nature makes for an interesting, if not entirely satisfying read.
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