Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. Pantheon Books, 2005; $23; 227 pages.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
The new novel from the author of Bad Behavior and Two Girls Fat and Thin, Veronica is about flesh and spirit, vanity, mortality, and mortal affection. Set mostly in Paris and Manhattan in the 1980s, it has the moral power of a fairy tale. As a teenager on the streets of San Francisco, Alison is discovered by a photographer and swept into the world of fashion modeling in Paris and Rome. When her career crashes and a love affair ends disastrously, she moves to New York City to build a new life. There she meets Veronica -- an older wisecracking eccentric with her own ideas about style, a proofreader who comes to work with a personal "office kit" and a plaque that reads "Still Anal After All These Years." Improbably, the two women become friends. Their friendship will survive not only Alison's reentry into the seductive nocturnal realm of fashion, but also Veronica's terrible descent into the then-uncharted realm of AIDS. The memory of their friendship will continue to haunt Alison years later, when she, too, is aging and ill and is questioning the meaning of what she experienced and who she became during that time.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Publishers Weekly: Imagine that Edie Sedgwick penned a roman à clef in her 50s, and that she discovered, in her ugly, diseased decrepitude, that celebrities and downtown loft spaces and skuzzy rich hangers-on were the nadir of existence. Imagine that she managed, in her own post--trauma-addled way, to convey a beautiful-ugly portrait of this life, and the life that followed that life, a life of cleaning offices and riding public buses, in a wincingly acute manner that allowed you not only to forgive the destructiveness in which her youthful self luxuriated but view it as a real human tragedy. This is the accomplishment of Veronica, or rather of Alison, who is the narrator and soul-wearied subject of Mary Gaitskill's second novel.... Gaitskill's style is gorgeously caustic and penetrating with a homing instinct toward the harrowing; her ability to capture abstract feelings and sensations with a precise and unexpected metaphor is a squirmy delight to encounter in such abundance.
From Elle: A beautiful, devastating new novel.
From Booklist: Gaitskill writes sexually frank and emotionally scouring tales of women on the verge and in the abyss.... Here, she again posits an improbable alliance between two women who, for all their differences, share a renegade spirit. Alison, the intriguingly ambivalent narrator, discovers at an early age that her prettiness gives her power and leaves her vulnerable.... She takes a night-shift temp job and meets Veronica, who is older, unbeautiful, not hip, and joltingly cynical. Duncan, the love of Veronica's life, is a rampantly unfaithful bisexual who infects her with AIDS. Gaitskill perfectly evokes the ambience of the 1970s and 1980s: the trance of pop music, the ubiquitous drugs, fashion's sadomasochistic bent, the lust for wealth, and the quiet terror of AIDS.
From The New York Times: Mary Gaitskill's fierce, night-blooming new novel is about a close friendship between two women. But it should not be confused with anything cozy. Imagine a buddy story from the mind of William S. Burroughs, illustrated with images by Robert Mapplethorpe or David Cronenberg, and you get some idea of the tenderness to be found here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mary Gaitskill, daughter of a community college teacher, was born in Kentucky in 1954 and reared primarily in Michigan. She graduated from the University of Michigan at 24 and headed for Manhattan. Ms. Gaitskill is most recently the author of Because They Wanted to: Stories, which was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1998. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Esquire, The Best American Short Stories (1993), and The O. Henry Prize Stories (1998). Her story "Secretary" was the basis for the film of the same name. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she teaches creative writing at Syracuse University. She lives in New York.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
We talked, Ms. Gaitskill and I, rather haltingly at first. We admitted we were shy. We found it easier to write than to talk. She was at home in Syracuse, where she teaches creative writing, and I was here in California.
Ms. Gaitskill confessed that when she moved to New York she immediately loved it. "I took it to it -- it was right in the early '80s, so it was a fun, interesting place. You could entertain yourself by walking around on the street, even if you had no money. It was the first place I felt at home."
For the past few years Ms. Gaitskill has taught at Syracuse. Because she'd written the introduction to the Modern Library edition of Dickens's Bleak House, I asked if she taught him.
No, she didn't. "I haven't had occasion to teach him because the literature course I'm teaching this coming semester is the short story. They don't force you to be too academic here, which is good because my academic education is pretty paltry. I refer to Dickens quite a bit in my creative writing classes."
"How long have you taught?"
"My very first class I taught at the 'Y,' in '89, but I don't know if that counts. I was pretty inept. I was terrified. I was so scared I could hardly talk. I seriously started teaching in '93."
"Do you think it's possible to teach someone to write?"
"No. I don't know anyone who does. It's funny. I've not yet met anyone who claims that they think that. It saddens me that now an MFA is about de rigueur. It's like anyone who feels that they're serious about writing, they feel they have to do it. That was not true when I was young. MFAs were starting to happen at that time. This is in the early '80s, but I don't think anyone felt like they had to do it. Now people do. I still cling to the belief that if a person is a real writer, the MFA program isn't going to ruin them."