VERONICA – Mary Gaitskill
Some snippets on the cover say this story is about beauty. There is much more: A realistic painting of life in the big city, and characters who cannot escape the whirl: Death, life, growing and maturing and love round the novel.
The story is told by a young model for ten years of survival. She is beautiful but doesn’t know how to comprehend it, work with it and protect herself. Innocent and unaware she lets herself be abused, and that is the life in the big city, Paris and New York: One insult after another ending in terror and horror. The reader senses what happens in Paris is originally decadent whereas New York only produces simulation and derivation.
Beauty goes beyond a physical appearance, until the model feels ugly. As her boyfriend hits her trying to force her to admit she is beautiful, she sinks into the experience appearance has given her: living life can make a person, who is conscious, ugly. The reader understands that discouragements, insults and crudities started the abasement before the violence.
The model remembers everything. Her memory is supported by literary devices. Gaitskill conceives motifs which she carries through the novel: Rigoletto, The worm goes in... These motifs suggest analogies, metaphors and allegories. Gaitskill tells the tale in lustrous language – the turn of the phrase, similes, metaphors or an unexpected noun. The language gains momentum as the reader creeps into the fright of life in New York. Life with her family is real. Having returned from Paris, the model staying with her parents, returns home for the evening:
“I kissed Ed on the cheek and got out of the car. In the house sat my father, drinking beer and waiting for dinner. La Traviata was on the record player: I said hi and walked through the room. Sara was in the dining room, crouching an inch away from the TV straining the hear over the music. My mother was in the kitchen, stirring a fragrant pot. How I loved her. How I didn’t know…”(97)
An event in New York seem more fanciful:
“When we came out, Nadia had moved on and the air of the room had changed like the sea in the wake of a great wave. All the little creatures and shells still stirred, fitful and chaotic. An oyster sweating in his cream-colored shell was talking into a microphone about something nobody could hear. A laughing blond bit of seaweed rolled against a scudding black-haired pebble and they slid down the wall, laughing. Patrick said, ‘Honey, let’s go…'” (175)
Readers might wish Gaitskill would jot down more sentences, but she doesn’t need them. She knows the rule about constructing imagery – economy, efficiency and less is more.
The language allows Gaitskill to shift the voice. The story becomes less of a telling of the model’s experience, struggles and growing. It slides to the model’s impressions of those things: The model stumbles and never finds love; Veronica lingers and dies of AIDS. But love and illness are combined: Veronica’s bi-sexual lover gave her AIDS, and yet Veronica describes the relationship with him, which would make any couple in marriage happy.
Because the model doesn’t see Veronica fade everyday, the reader can believe the model cannot relay the on-coming doom. Gaitskill chooses an easy foil to produce a crushing literary impression and an entertainment disapproval. The model goes to a club and hears a rock band. She realizes:
“I drank and bit the rim of my plastic cup and lost myself in the music on the sound system. I had succeeded. I had become like this music. My face had been a note in a piece of continuous music that rolled over people while they talked and drank…No one remembers a particular note. No one remembers a piece of grass. But it does its part. I had done my part…. The band came on stage.” (209)
“The room was full of life that wanted forms to hold it [dandified feelings], and it wasn’t picky. Neither were we. We watched as if we were witnessing the preservation of a place in our collective heart – a place that had once been primary that we no longer knew what it was or where it was. And now we felt it: secret and tender, and with so many chambers… There was Veronica alone in her apartment, locked in full engagement with forces the musicians lightly referred to. The song said nothing about any of them, but they were part of it anyway.” (210)
“…I wanted to tell her [Veronica] this. I wanted her to know that even though she was dying, she was still included in the story told by the music.” (211)
From her distended thinking, the model is returned to reality. Hearing the delight and sensations, Veronica says, “This isn’t a rock song, hon.” (211)
Growing and maturing by experience is the most pitiful way of life. Throughout Veronica the model goes to jobs, goes out to eat, goes to clubs, drinks, does drugs and meets the wrong, unsavory people engaging in the same or similar activities. There is sex but no love anywhere, beyond a rock song and its collectivity. The model has seen much and lived the sad life of Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism: “Experience keeps a dear school, yet Fools will learn in no other.” Poor Richard’s Alamack. In the end the model has hepatitis.
There need be no explanation why the model never avoids the desultory lifestyle. That is not the story. But within the story one senses that New Yorkers have pets, small dogs and cats, not only to have an animal to love, but also as an excuse to stay home and avoid the scene.
Parents may not like Veronica, but if they are conscious and aware, they know it represents reality. That world has only become more intense and detached. Veronica is a book for every teenage girl in America, filled with nothing in mind but dreams – marvels, glitter, beauty, wonders – to read: In a few years the hounds of hell will be upon you – your body, your mind, your mental well being, your financial well being, your health. LIFE – Get ready for it. Beauty doesn’t protect you. Beauty makes you a target. Youth is gone with the first life experience.
An attempt to write about New York failed, yet it is assigned in most American high schools: The Great Gatsby which I previous reviewed, “Loathing Gatsby.” On literary merit, as a depiction of New York and as a reflection of society, Veronica should replace Gatsby as the book to read in high school. There is no character as weak and unreal in Veronica as Gatsby and Daisy are in Gatsby. Yes, Veronica is frank, detailed, obnoxious and objectionable. But what sort of literature do Americans want their children to read? Do Americans want their children to be educated to the world? Should American children know they can read, anticipate and be prepared? Literature can do that. Or should Americans take their dreaming daughters to the water and toss them in and watch them drown?
Veronica is a distaff book. The model activities and thoughts return her to her family. There is realization, understanding and reconciliation. The book ends with “I will call my father and tell him I finally heard him. I will be full of gratitude and joy.” But in the book the exploration for love by the model and by anyone else is incomplete, in the society reflected by the ersatz entertainments tearing participants and the audience apart.
There is no great explanation of what love is and how it should survive – perhaps living in New York with pets. What are men supposed to do? That answer seems carry an ample supply of condoms. Veronica presents a hopelessness about the state of love in society. Love needs a platform protected from the whirl. This is an issue that Americans can resolve.