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on 12 January 2006
Love, sex, death, friendship, illness, and pain - it's all here; boldly expounded on in Mary Gaitskill's disturbing and exquisitely written Veronica. Writing as though she is single-handedly redefining the genre of literary fiction, Gaitskill has written a compelling and persuasive story of a seemingly incompatible friendship in the age of AIDS.
Alyson first meets Veronica when she's working as a temp for an ad agency in New York City. Initially a little too forward, brash, and a little too hard to handle, Alyson is hesitant to befriend the slightly heavyset older woman who has difficulty making friends and is, at least to Alyson's eyes, an unmitigated fashion disaster.
When Veronica confides that she has contracted HIV from Duncan - her self-confessed bisexual boyfriend - Alyson, with a mixture of pity, compassion, and perhaps even love, adopts this abrasive, prissy, uncompressing woman, who doesn't know when to keep quiet, "she has a lot of smart cracks stored up. She needed them, when she didn't have them, she was naked and everybody saw."
But Alyson's friendship of Veronica is only part of the story: Gaitskill steadily charts Alyson, from her journey as a fashion model in decadent Paris and Manhattan of the 1980's, to her a claustrophobic childhood in suburban New Jersey, complete with an uncommunicative, reserved father, a wayward, nervy mother, and two very ordinary sisters.
We are first introduced to Alyson when she's fifty, the decadent hedonistic life of a model - the coke, the sex, the parties, and the beautiful people - a thing of the past. Now she's living a sad life, full of pain, she's lost her looks and is on disability, plagued by chronic arm and neck pain, with only her best friend John to pity her, "a beautiful girl in a ruined face," forever broken with age and pain coming through the cracks.
It is only natural that Alyson cling to something familiar, remembering her friendship with Veronica with a kind of whimsical regret; Veronica certainly wasn't the center of her life, but she was always there, and she was the loyal person to fall back on. The recollection of her not only helps Alyson cope with her pain, but also provides the story's central mirror image - whilst Alyson was carried way, Veronica's friendship ultimately provided the only solid bedrock of her life.
This novel is all about memory and the search for connection, perhaps even for love. Alyson aches for a meaningful relationship, for some kind of bond with someone. Her problem is that she's constantly looking at people in her life as objects without specific functions, circulating in a world where the physical beauty is all, she wants to know people and to love, but she's developed a "habit of distance," that has become so deep, she doesn't know how to be with another person. Even when Veronica is near death's door, silently suffering, Alyson is quick to pass brittle and frail judgments about her.
Most of the characters in Veronica are unlikable, but it is to Gaitskill's enormous talents as a writer that she can expose their very real human flaws, and indeed create certain sympathies for their plight. Alyson is an utterly fascinating character, she seems to be suspended forever on an imaginary brink, eyes dimmed and looking at nothing. In Veronica the author has created a complex women who gradually realizes that there is a senselessly "disordered world" that is "slowly being taken from her. "
Elegantly written, the characters in Veronica are constantly living on the verge, but they also fully embrace their fates, whether it is chronic pain, a life of bad luck, or even certain death from an incurable disease, or just plain sadness - "sadness brimmed; it bore up my hate like water bears ice and carried it away." Their complicated relationships are ripe with anguish, lonesomeness, and neglect, but there's also an undeniable vestige of hope and optimism in this profound work of contemporary literary fiction. Mike Leonard January 06
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 29 November 2014
loved this novel. "Veronica" is freshly and honestly told with a perspective not often seen in serious fiction. The narrator is a woman named Alison. At the time we meet Alison, she is about fifty years old, alone, poor, broken and sick with hepatitis and other ailments. She lives in San Rafael, California and works as a cleaning woman for John, a photographer and former friend. Alison tells her story in the course of a day, as she cleans John's studio, takes a shabby bus towards home, and wanders up and down a hill in a forest reflecting upon her life.

Among the most striking features of "Veronica" is the varied sense of place, with five areas receiving particularized descriptions. The first is Hoboken, New Jersey, where Alison grew up in a family with angry, unhappy parents and two sisters. The second is San Franciso. At 16, Alison ran away and lived on the street selling flowers. The descriptions of the seedy North Beach areas of the city are among the most powerful in the book. A significant portion of the story is also set in Paris, as Alison becomes a famous fashion model and the mistress of a powerful and sinister agent. Gaitskill presents both the glamor and the underbelly of Parisian life, as seen through her young protagonist. The fourth major location described in the book is New York City. Alison meets her friend, Veronica, and has another temporary success working as a model. Gaitskill captures well the shimmer and pace of New York City life, in its cruelty and opportunity. The final setting of the book is San Rafael, California, where the aging and sick Alison makes her home and recounts her story. In the book, Gaitskill and her narrator shift repeatedly from one scene to another as Alison reflects upon her like. This gives the book a collage-like stream of consciousness quality which, while difficult to follow in places, enhances the force of the story.

In addition to its varied setting, "Veronica" tells a moving multi-faceted story. As a teenager, Alison ran away from home in New Jersey to San Francisco and works in the notorious North Beach area. With her naievety, she is taken advantage of by a man purporting to be a modeling agent. But for better or worse, this incident leads to Alison's opportunity to become a successful model in Paris. After experiences both glittering and sordid, she returns home and enrolls in junior college in New Jersey. The allure of the fast-paced glittery life proves irresitible to her. Alison moves to New York City and eventually again pursues fashion modeling.

Alison becomes friends with an eccentric woman named Veronica, sixteen years older than she is who has a bisexual male lover. The story is set near the onset of the AIDS epidemic, and Veronica's lover contracts AIDS and dies, and Veronica does as well. Alison and Veronica meet while Alison is temping and doing word-processing jobs in New York. The on-again off-again friendship deepens when Alison learns that Veronica has tested positive and she refuses to abandon her.

There is a great deal of rawness in this book and a sense, as Veronica says at one point, of living life on the edge. Alison is both repelled by the shallowness of her life and compelled to follow its allure. Her many ambivalences are at the heart of this novel. I was right to leave the beaten path of conventionality, Alison says to the reader in several places, to find my own path and to see the world in my own way. A major theme of the book lies in how close Gaitskill and Alison come in showing the reader the allure and the appeal of Alison's unconventional, bohemian life.

Alison struggles to learn, through her relationship with Veronica not only how to accept her own life but also how to come to terms with her parents and family and hear their stories and failed dreams as well as her own. Alison's parents had fought each other furiously during life. But Alison learns songs and music from her father -- popular songs from the 1940's and Verdi's Rigoletto play important roles in the story -- and poetry and allegorical stories from her mother. The book opens with a fairy tale Alison heard from her mother when young -- which Alison effectively acts out through the course of the story. Alison's ambition to become a poet seems to be forsaken as she pursues her modeling. Ironically, however, she realizes poetry in the brilliant quality of her narrative, dreams and reflections. Broken, despondent, and sick at the end of the book, there is a suggestion that Alison may find peace and hope.

This book is a raw, unsentimental and inspiring read. It manages to include many seemingly contradictory themes and attitudes. It is both surrealistic, as it moves in Alison's thought from her life in the present to the past, from place to place, and brutally precise and frank in its depiction of people and places. Superficiality is intertwined with depth in "Veronica" and in its characters. I was greatly moved by this book.

Robin Friedman
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