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