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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.

 

NEW YORK CITIERS

NEW YORK CITIERS

Citizens of New York state are New Yorkers, but an odd breed of beings are New York Citiers. This has always been the case, noted during the American Revolution and through the Constitutional period. Three examples provide this distinction – the separation of New York Citiers from other Americans – and tell that New York Citiers are selfish, irrational, duplicitous, depraved and unreformable.

In 1775 New York Citiers were conflicted about the Britain and King or Americans and freedom. No one wanted to stand in one camp or the other: “…it had to receive the rebel generals on the same day that it must welcome back from a visit to England its royal governor…Fortunately, they landed there several hours apart, so that “the volunteer companies raised for the express purpose of rebellion,” as the loyalist judge, Thomas Jones, put it, “the members of the Provincial Congress….the parsons of the dissenting meetinghouses, with all the leaders and partisans of faction and rebellion,” would meet the generals at four in the afternoon, and conduct them to Leonard Lispenard’s house, “amidst repeated shouts and huzzas,” and, at nine o’clock, “the members of his Majesty’s Council, the Judges of the Supreme Court, the Attorney General…the Clergymen of the Church of England,” and so on, all the dignified, respectable, highly placed officials, “with a numerous train of his Majesty’s loyal and well affected subjects,” could meet the Governor and conduct him, “with universal shouts of applause,” to the residence of Hugh Wallace, Esq. “But strange to relate… those very people who attended the rebel Generals in the morning… and now, one and all, joined in the Governor’s train and with the loudest acclamations… welcomed him back to the colony…What a farce! What cursed hypocrisy!”

Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution, NY, MacMillan, p. 102.

New York City was the last place on the original 13 states that the British occupied. The British liked the place and left their mark, concealing the abhorrent, sinful and arrogant attitudes and moods of the people existing in that place. I often wonder whether the negotiators of the 1783 Treaty of Paris did not make a mistake: Leave the British in possession of New York City in exchange for giving the United States of America Canada.

Of course, no one would trade New York City for twenty-five cents, so neither the Canadians nor the British would go for it today. New York City has one major drawback, its people:

“With all the opulence and splendor of this city, there is very little good breeding to be found. We have been treated with an assiduous respect. But I have not seen one real gentlemen, one well-bred man, since I came to town. At their entertainments there is no conversation that is agreeable.

There is no modesty, no attention to one another. They talk very loud, very fast and all together. If they ask you a question, before you can utter three words of your answer, they will break out upon you again, and talk again.

Page Smith, John Adams, NY, Doubleday, 1962, vol. 1, p. 166.

As stated, the primary economic activity of New York Citiers is talk, from any man or woman from that place. Americans get to experience New York City on TV every minute of every day. Almost every New York City journalist asks a very imperfect question and the interviewee guesses at the desired answer. The journalist, in New York Citier fashion just like John Adams reported, interrupts and sometimes answers his own question while arguing with the interviewee and asking another imperfect question. In that process a few dozen cliches, slogans and homilies, are spit out in an attempt to direct the interviewee onto the politically correct answer. New York Citiers are obviously eager to tell their individual stories to captive audiences and interviewees, silent and not heard. Any interviewee who doesn’t comply with these broadcast rules is never interviewed again.

But talk is cheap, especially today when mouths are disconnected from brains frequently addled by chemicals or sheer ignorance. Excessive jabbering on TV comes from great insecurity, much like rulers of a totalitarian society: “…no matter how enlightened, [they] will never surrender – a constantly exercise – their power to hector, warn, and admonish, in brief to pester and bore their helpless subjects.” (Adam Ulam, The Fall of the American University, N.Y., The Library Press, 1972, p. 170.)

Other than what New York Citiers chatter about incessantly today, like each of them is living in a Woody Allen movie, they were obsessively nonsensical in the 1780s. James Madison wrote George Washington a letter discussing the suitability of New York City as the capital of the United States, but he kept referring to the people of that place:

It seems to be particularly essential that an eye should be had in all our public arrangements to the accommodation of the Western Country, which perhaps cannot be sufficiently gratified at any rate, but which might be furnished with new fuel to its jealousy by being summoned to the sea-shore & almost at one end of the Continent. There are reasons, but of too confidential a nature for any other than verbal communication which make it of crucial importance…

The extreme eccentricity of [New York City] will certainly in my opinion being on a premature and consequently an improper choice. This policy [Capital of New York City] is avowed by some of the sticklers for this place, and is known to prevail with the bulk of them. People from the interior…will never patiently repeat their trips to this remote situation…

Papers of James Madison, vol 12, p. 343, August 24, 1788.

Madison is not the sort of person to come out and complain in a letter. He’s willing to voice reasons and reactions to New York City in a personal meeting, but he couldn’t avoid noting the extreme eccentricity present in 1788. It’s more true today. It is a place that derives all the benefits of having 33,000 police officers on its force. How have those cops done? Street crime is down, but in New York City white collar crime is unknown. Did Wall Street executives always comply with all laws, from 2005-2010?

If New York City is the center of journalism, what did journalists do over the last ten years to uncover and report the greatest financial crimes committed since the 1920s? Have any articles examined or explained high speed trading strategies, and how those programs are analogous to “pooling” arrangements made by Wall Street traders 90 years ago? Has anyone ever noticed that in his book on the Great Depression, John Kenneth Galbraith has a chapter entitled, “In Goldman Sachs We Trust,” and why is anyone trusting that institution and those people these days? New York City may be the center of advertising, but does anyone want to watch ads today? Larry and Darin did a lot better than the guys on “Madmen.”

In the early 1970s Richard Nixon brought the country to its knees by depleting trust and confidence in government. In the last ten years through Wall Street New York Citiers have attacked America and Americans, and afterward seeking protection in security laws, in privilege and immunity, in trade secrets and confidence as well as a financial mafia pledged to silence. Trust and confidence nationwide remain uneasy. Any investor would have been better off investing with the mob, than with most institutions on Wall Street. New York Citiers turned their private exposure into public obligations through the obscenely wild expansion of debt and using the Federal Reserve balance sheet. This is the status of New York Citiers, nothing to applaud and everything to detest – pride and arrogance in their insularity. It has been a problem for this country since the founding.