All This Useless Beauty
Mary Gaitskill’s new novel reads like a book of reckoning. The title is somewhat misleading. Veronica tells the story of Alison Owen, presently a middle-aged woman and one who, as her name suggests, is unremarkable in most every way. Except, perhaps, for one. In her youth, Alison possessed a disquieting and specific beauty, so that throughout the ‘80s—that heartless, empty decade, in which much of the narrative takes place—she lived her life as a high-fashion model. Now, 20 years later, she is afflicted by disease (Hepatitis C) and disability. Over the course of the novel, Alison comes to look back upon her past, counting the cost of her youth and beauty, belatedly recognizing the unlikely depth of familial ties, and ultimately, facing up to her own mortality. The latter of these preoccupations is investigated by way of recalling an unlikely friendship, with Veronica, an older co-worker and friend who eventually died from AIDS.
To this point in her artistic development, Gaitskill has invariably been forced to endure the denigrating label of “subversive” author. Primarily through her two collections of short stories, Bad Behavior and Because They Wanted To, she has been lightly regarded in certain quarters as a woman who enters dark psychic spaces and whips up seamy stories of the flesh—albeit with a more striking command of language than your average deviant. Such notions are clearly both nonsensical and shortsighted. While various of her stories feature homosexuality, bisexuality, and a full, broad palette of sadomasochistic shadings, one clear lesson of the Internet must surely be that the verb “subvert” has now been revealed as obsolete, at least as it pertains to human sexuality. Really, who is there left to subvert?
More than that, however, such a limiting reputation has thus far failed to take into account the precision and dexterity with which Gaitskill approaches language. Also, the diligence with which she has sought to refine her craft over a period of more than 20 years. There’s something snide in the implication of the “subversive” label, as though she or, say Dennis Cooper (who also finds himself tarred with the same brush), are not entirely serious in their artistic objectives. As if their subject matter permits them to be packed off to one side in a small box, far from serious consideration, away from the “real writers”.
One paradox of Gaitskill’s work is that while she does investigate the sexual obsessions and helpless cravings of her characters—both men and women who find themselves emotionally stranded, in cities on east and west coasts—there are few lengthy descriptions of sex acts themselves within her stories. Most of the “action” takes place either before or after physical intimacy, through internal monologue or in dialogue between two lovers. Sex may be a physical act, but it’s a psychological response. In this respect then, Gaitskill is an author of interiors. When you visualize her characters, you invariably imagine them locked within the confines of four walls. Often they find themselves revealed—if not to each other, then at least to themselves—in cramped apartments or seedy motels, in desensitized workspaces or within the claustrophobic confines of automobiles. If they venture outside, it is solely a means of leaving one place to arrive at another—the return home from a gallery or club, perhaps. The journey is metaphorical, a means of taking us deeper into her character’s psyche, and the local landmarks we see are extremely local, existing within the character’s mind.
All of which serves to highlight what a significant departure Veronica represents for its author.
Gaitskill is 48-years-old now, and her first book of stories was published when she was thirty-two. In much of that earlier work her characters ventured through youth into their 20s and 30s, flailing in their attempts to unlock the mystery of who they might be. The current book, however, finds its protagonist looking back, trying to re-imagine the girl she once was. Instead of locking herself indoors, the central character of the new novel ventures into nature, taking a detour into the woods on her return home from work, seeking meaning in what’s out there: life. In fact, there is a new and startling awareness of life outside permeating the new work, and you can feel Gaitskill striving out to meet it:
The bus humps and puffs as it makes a labored circle around a block of discount stores and a deserted grocery. As the bus leans hard to one side, its gears make a high whinging sound, like we’re streaking through space. Looking beyond the stores, I glimpse green hills and a cross-section of sidewalks with little figures toiling on them. Pieces of life packed in hard skulls with soft eyes looking out, toiling up and down, around and around. More distant green, the side of a building. The bus comes out of the turn and stops at the transfer point. It sags down with a gassy sigh.
While the early work often seemed to be about the flesh whilst being acutely psychological, the new novel is psychological in its staging (the narrative is a single, continuous interior monologue, fashioned over the course of a work day and later, the journey home), yet conversely, takes for its subject matters of the flesh. This is, after all, the story of a fashion model who eventually loses her looks. It is also about the beauty industry, the superficiality of physical appearance and how we judge others, as well as being a meditation on the ways we fetishize youth. Lastly, of course, it is also about the strength of the spirit when confronted with the inevitable decay of the body.
The story Alison tells is of breaking free from home at fifteen, leaving behind a fraught relationship with her parents. Her mother is distant and removed, and she most clearly comes to understand her father via the messages he seeks to convey in his own language, the language of songs and recording artists he plays most and loves:
I remember being there once when he was playing the songs for some men he worked with, talking excitedly about the music. He didn’t realize his signals could not be heard, that the men were looking at him strangely. Or maybe he did realize but didn’t know what to do but keep signaling. Eventually he gave up and there were few visitors. He was just by himself, trying to keep alive those secret and tender feelings through these old songs.
Having made her way from New Jersey to San Francisco, Alison falls into modeling via a seedy connection made whilst selling flowers outside a go-go bar. From here, by way of a detour or two along the way, she finds herself inhabiting the decadent and distinctly unglamorous fashion worlds of Paris and New York.
What Gaitskill chooses to say about the fashion and model industry is neither the most interesting nor original aspect of the book. That young, malnourished girls are deceived and exploited by ruthless agents, lose themselves in sex and drugs, and are valued only as long as their looks remain untarnished, in vogue, will come as news to practically no one. Additionally, a plot point in which “the most powerful agent in Europe” siphons away the earnings of his charges into a Swiss bank account without ever sullying his reputation, strikes one as rather incredulous.
But, in fact, Alison is never more than a cog in the fashion wheel, moderately successful, briefly tenured. She goes looking to find herself there and finds nothing and no one. Instead, much of what she learns from it, she learns later from Veronica: “Prettiness is all about pleasing people. When you stop being pretty, you don’t have to do that anymore. I don’t have to do that anymore. It’s my show now.”
For all the myriad pleasures the novel holds—and there are many, from the obvious beauty of language (in its lyricism, it occasionally recalls the work of Denis Johnson), to its brave experiments with structure and form—the weakest aspect of the book is, surprisingly, the unlikely friendship around which it is built. Somehow, the precise nature of what binds Alison, a beautiful, lost and vacant young woman, to Veronica, a garish, older temp-office worker afflicted with AIDS, never quite comes into focus. Only in retrospect, it seems, and through years of acquired wisdom, does Veronica come to resonate with Alison. Of course, it’s possible that is the point Gaitskill is trying to make: that sometimes people come into our lives and we are unable to explain their effect on us; that trying to understand them, their power over us, is, in fact, the key to why they resonate so profoundly. Well, maybe. But I doubt this is the author’s intent, and the elusive nature of Alison’s connection to Veronica is the delicate flaw that threatens to mar the overall pattern and beauty of this ambitious work.
Threatens, yes, but doesn’t quite manage to do so. Recently Veronica was a nominated finalist for the National Book Award, and while the dubious merits of such awards are up for debate, the fact that Gaitskill, as a result, will at last find a more sizeable readership can only be considered a positive. Over recent years her writing has undergone powerful and significant stylistic change, without compromise either to theme or subject. Veronica is an intensely lyrical and poetic work, full of rich turns of phrase and brilliant, vivid metaphor. An author such as this, striving to communicate difficult the emotions we often consider incommunicable, needs to be recognized and, more importantly, read.