America's Next Flopped Model

by Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill's Veronica is an uphill climb. At least it is for Alison, a fiftyish woman, who hauls her rickety body up a steep slope to wash the windows of an ex-lover, John. He's a photographer who speaks in hapless, flapping platitudes. (Of his awe at his newborn child, he coos, "I want this house to be a house of love.") Going about her purgatorial duties, Alison is plagued by hepatitis C and a bunged-up, sore arm. More than that, she is burdened by memories of Veronica--the kind of older lady who referred to everyone as "hon" and quacked out of the side of her mouth, "I'm familiar with Jimmy Joyce and his use of the semi-colon."

Alison, we soon learn, crash-landed out of the world of big-time modeling into Veronica's shlumpy, fluorescent-lit office. There, in a temp job at an ad agency, she found herself magnetically pulled into an inexplicable friendship with this loud, clumsy, absurdly self-important woman. Alison goes on to unfurl a dual portrait of diminution: Veronica's disintegration into the final stages of AIDS, and her own loss of youthful beauty. By the end of the book, both will have become luminous, waking ghosts.

The first 10 or 20 pages of Veronica display Gaitskill's characteristic strengths--the minutiae of half-second-long bursts of feeling--though they're at such a level of potency that you might find your breath quickened by frightened anticipation. The novel seems to be lowering you down into a deep, narrow, airless well of sadness. You can consider it good or bad news that what follows is an ever-deeper descent into an ever-darker well.

Mary Gaitskill has never received the academic plaudits and the blue-ribbon awards she deserves, perhaps because she is so often associated with a peculiarly '80s, vaguely theory-driven flavor of "transgressive sexuality." (The notoriety of her sharp, scarily truthful short story "Secretary" helped cement that identity, despite having yielded the dopey, S&M-is-fun movie with Maggie Gyllenhaal.) Here, the author hurls that outré quality in the reader's face by setting Alison's youthful period of heavenly delectation in the world of modeling. This realm is rendered in a deliberately banal, shiny, stick-on-decal manner that recalls Bret Easton Ellis's similarly generic rendering in Glamorama. Alison's flickers of pleasure in this atmosphere shine spookily against the walls of the well:

Bright music played and made pictures of abundant brightness: lips and teeth, soft breasts saronged in silk, warm skin, cut figs, wine and sunlight...I listened to [my boyfriend's friends] and thought of a photographer who habitually held his arrogant head turned up and away from his body, as if pretending it wasn't there.

Veronica glides from these brief moments in the clouds of supermodeldom, to Alison's days on the streets of the East Village with Veronica, to her physically anguished present, likened many times to the curse on a beautiful princess in a fairy tale. On one hand, not a lot happens. Which is another way of saying that the book finds Gaitskill refining the innovation she has brought to fiction: making the quick, usually unconscious squiggles of sensation that race through us day and night feel as vivid and physically arresting as actual actions. Walking through the world after reading Gaitskill is like slipping on a pair of mind-reading glasses.

Consider, for instance, how Alison sees a couple of horny teens cutting up at a party:

They didn't touch or act sexy, but they looked at each other the whole time, like they were connected through their eyes. They danced to [the music's] secret personality--clownish and gross, like something big and dumb stuck in a tar pit and trying to walk its way out with brute force. Like being stuck and gross was something great.

Here, as elsewhere, Gaitskill uses language to peer into humiliating places that are too deeply buried and move away too quickly for everyday articulation. It's a trick of masters such as Nabokov and Updike, but what's uniquely exciting about Gaitskill's writing is that she abjures those authors' gentlemanly, lord-of-the-manor vocabulary. Instead, she sticks to sentences that a hot, slovenly, swollen-with-feeling teenage girl (the archetype of the Gaitskill protagonist) could absorb in a single glance. The result is a style that feels constantly harrowing and terrifying, the level of insight so precise as to be almost blinding.

Sound like fun? It's not, I guess; for that, look to that expert fashioner of bourgeois psychodramas, Jennifer Egan (whom Gaitskill has been compared to unfavorably). Gaitskill is no crowd-pleaser. Nor is she a political novelist: Her acute concentration on the minutiae of consciousness has kept her from ever attempting the Grand Rococo style that generally connotes "serious fiction" in America. Still, there is a kind of politics to this novel in the way that Gaitskill discovers in even the dingiest lives a depth of interiority; it's like watching the rise and fall of a solar system in super-fast motion.

Veronica could be considered a sick-joke riposte to the high school counselor's hopeful bromide, "What counts is on the inside." Yet it does suggest, like all her work, that the most perfunctory of human transactions contain a depth of mystery we can never penetrate. Gaitskill can only club at it with thick, stumpy words--and capture it fiercely.

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