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."
"Any more than will a data-entry job."
"Right. That's why I have taught and, up until recently, have not felt guilty about teaching. Because I always did feel that if the person's not a writer, the MFA program isn't going to make them one, but by the same token, if they are one, the MFA Program isn't going to stop them. I do think it's possible to come across a student that's on your wavelength who can learn something from you.
"I still believe that what I said is true. Something that bothers me more about the MFA programs is that I think that they created a climate regardless of what the talent level of the student is; that's the opposite of what nurtures a writer. If someone is working on their own outside of an MFA program, which is how people did it for centuries, they're always aware that they're taking a big risk in their life, and that they're alone, that there isn't anyone to guide them through it. They have supportive friends, or they may even join a writing circle, but still those things don't have the imprimatur of an official approval or an institutional support.
"I think when somebody goes into a writing program, even if they're smart, even if they know this degree doesn't mean 'I'm a writer,' the fact that they're going to a graduate program, which historically means in any other field that once they get out they'll have a degree that makes them a doctor or a lawyer, is not a great idea. Even a smart person, therefore, can go through a program like that and get the degree and consciously tell themselves, 'This doesn't mean I'm a writer,' but they still do think that. And they're (1) set up for a lot of disappointment and (2) it's, like, they're no longer in the mindset of being outside an institutional system and taking their own risks. It's like a mentality of already buying into something because they took the course. It's a deadly mentality, even if the person is very bright and very talented."
"When I think of a 'real' writer, I will think, for instance, of Kerouac in '46, when he was working on The Town and the City. Each morning he would kneel before his desk and ask God to help him to write."
"I still do that sometimes."
"He would cut himself sometimes and write on the wall. In his journals, he wrote, as do many writers, of the claustrophobic loneliness of the writing room and then going out-of-doors and feeling painfully assailed by every sight, sound, odor, touch. He would feel as if he had no skin. Nobody can teach you to have no skin."
"This last group of students I had was actually quite good. They were interested in talking about that subject of looking at things and trying to see what something is. But it was foreign to what they had been thinking of before, how they thought of writing."
"Why did you name her Veronica?"
"From the beginning that was the title of it. People will read it differently. Friends who've looked at it, the thing I noticed was that to some of them Allison was by far the more interesting character. They may not have liked her as a person, but their feeling response was mainly toward her. With other people, their feeling response was toward Veronica; they were more interested in her. To me, the book is about Veronica. Allison is obviously important because you're seeing everything through her, but I can't answer it other than that.
"What's significant and what was tricky about writing the novel was I worried I was putting too much weight on what was in fact a relatively small relationship in her life. But to me sometimes those relationships, even if they're small by the usual standard of things, they can be important if they change the people involved. Veronica, even though Allison's relationship with her may have been peculiar and small, in some ways is changed and changed in a way she's not completely aware of when she's young. But then when she's older and has a deeper understanding, she understands Veronica's position better in a way. She's become softer by being worn away."
"Certain scenes in the book frightened me."
"When Allison was coming home late, in both New York and Paris, and the streets were dark. And the S&M club scenes scared me. I felt I could hear screams. Awful."
Ms. Gaitskill did not disagree. "That scene where I describe the man crawling on the floor, I actually saw that once. I saw it a long time ago, but it stayed with me. I know that's probably a terrible thing to admit, you should never admit you're basing something on something you actually saw. But in this instance, it popped out of my mouth. It was like the most disturbing thing because it almost wasn't...it almost wasn't about sex, I didn't think.
"To me it was a picture of an obsession that had been completely wrung dry of any juice. Like obsessions can seem -- it doesn't even feel wonderful because they're juicy and dripping with feeling. But once all that is wrung out, to have that horrible compulsion without any feeling to it at all, that's what I was looking at when I was looking at that guy. It was scary and sad. I felt terrible for him."
" Veronica, with Allison in her youth as a glossy, elegant model, and in old age as broken and unattractive, seems a book about appearance and reality."
"I don't know if I can give a very intelligent comment on that, but I know that it is important to me thematically in much of what I write, but in this book certainly.
"I actually started it, the book...I did a draft of it in the early '90s. That's when suddenly models were invented, when the whole country was completely obsessed with models. So that was one reason I picked it, simply because it was in my face all the time. But I think it was an extreme contrast between the world that Allison finds herself in when she's older and also a world of the condition that Veronica is in.
"It's almost like there's a bunch of masks, and one of them is a real face. It turns out that this real face happened in this chaos. Like, remember the scene where Allison is first starting the walk and she remembers a dream she had where these animals are being killed and reformed and then killed again? Also connected to this is this slightly feverish colloquy about 'Keep on running. It's not a character defect; it's a disease. Keep eating. Get on the treadmill.' Something real and alive is being tormented and driven by a mad ideal, which has become the real thing."
"And which is personified with this modeling."
"I do want to say, I don't think that the modeling industry is evil. To me, it's become something that's somewhat monstrous. Obviously all cultures everywhere like adornment and style. So, I don't think in and of itself it's bad. I think it's become something rather metastasized now. But as you say, the book's not about that. And I want to say that because I'm hoping to..."
"You don't want to be picketed by models."
"I may be anyway. I actually had a model read it, because I don't know the modeling world well, although I made it my business to find out as much about it as I could.
"Believe me, I don't look anything like a model. Allison was actually 28 years old when she becomes a model, which is impossible. But that's how little I knew. So I did talk to a lot of models and I also talked to a photographer and a hairdresser who worked with models, and eventually I learned enough. But to be sure that I didn't have anything outrageously wrong, I showed it to a model to be sure there weren't any bloopers. She thought it was quite true to the modeling world."
Ms. Gaitskill worked for almost a decade on Veronica . "I wrote a draft between '92 and '93 -- much more rough than I usually allow myself to do. I had a very hard time going back to it, because usually when I write a draft I'm meticulous about it. It was very crude, which I think was good, because I wanted to get a certain energy that was immediate with me at that time. But it was hard for me. For years I looked at it and I couldn't decide if I liked it or not -- if it were horrible, and some of it was. You would think it was written by a talented 23-year-old, not an experienced 36-year-old who had written two books.
"I wasn't actually writing on it for most of the time beginning in '92. I tried working on it in '94, and I wrote about 30 pages and gave up. I didn't know how to translate it into the language I was more accustomed to at that time. I couldn't tell the story of Veronica. So I put it aside and didn't look at it again until 2001. That's when I started work on it, and it was hard to get back into it.
"I was able to use material from the original draft and even some from the material in the '94 draft. But I put it in a different language. The imagery from the first draft was almost all the same."
Veronica's father regularly plays on the record player "oldies" from the 1940s and 1950s and opera. I was always puzzled by this and asked Ms. Gaitskill why this music kept reappearing.
"It's not something that I think I can explain except that music is important throughout the book. Veronica talks about wanting to live like music. She refers to music often and also notices her father expressing emotion through some songs that were popular when he grew up. And she tries to relate to other people through music and is not able to do so. Like her father, she is someone who's very responsive to music. I love music, and it's fascinating to me as a mode of expression."
She laughed. "Nabokov hated music. He thought it was a low form of expression that appealed to animals and crude people. It's very strange. He didn't like it. But I think that it does appeal to people on a very fundamental or crude level, but it also does things very quickly; it articulates things in a way that's so different from words. You go places in your mind with music, but it's so quick and so dreamlike that you couldn't write about it. I'm naturally tempted to write about it.
"So I'm giving that to Allison as a trait, this love of music. Although because she's not a writer she doesn't think of it that way."
"She talks about wanting to be a poet. Isn't that the sentimental side of her?"
"No, it's the pretentious side. She, in my mind, is not someone who could have or would have become a poet, but it's an aspiration that she has for a while. She does have a poetic side, which is different from actually being a poet. And she's someone who is deeply responsive to music, and so is her father.
"And opera, to me, I love opera. I've recently discovered that. I liked it when I was a kid. It's big, emotional music. It's great music for kids. Not all of it certainly. But stuff like Carmen, or La Bohème, which is pure, powerful, emotional music.
"To me, that was like a broader form for Allison to connect with her father and, at the end, with Veronica in that bigger feeling range than is allowed by popular music. Also, it creates a synergy between Veronica and the father because Veronica also loves opera. Opera also to me was appropriate for the book because opera can be sentimental. It does have the element of the false or overly theatrical or overstated, which Veronica has."
"Too," I said, "those questions of appearance and reality."
"Yes, big costumes, preposterous faces, voice sometimes bordering on the preposterous. That's very much Veronica's style. She's that person, even though she's a ridiculous and modest person on one level in terms of her life. But on the other hand, she's highly theatrical. That's part of why she and Allison connect, even though they appear to be very different. Veronica, more in a way than Allison, is somebody. Most 24-year-olds would not become friends with somebody like Veronica because they were older. But Allison has had experiences that most younger people don't have; and she unconsciously has an understanding of suffering and isolation that most people her age would not have, and she understands the grotesque uses of style. So even though to her Veronica looks awful, on another level she 'gets it' in a way that most younger people would not.
"Operatic music is so big and thundering and you can hate it for that reason or see it as absurd. Veronica is a melodramatic and sentimental person in some ways. But there's a genuine component to her sentimentality."
"What do you do when you're not writing?"
"Well, a lot of the time I'm not writing. If I'm not teaching, I can spend an amazing amount of time doing very little. I like to take walks. I like to read. I think hardly anybody does anymore. But I spend a lot of time when I don't even know what I'm doing. I was in a community theater production of a children's play of A Christmas Carol last winter. Which was quite serious and required that I rehearse; we started in September and we rehearsed two times a week. One month before the actual performance we were rehearsing four times a week. The week before the performance we rehearsed every night. From a two- to four-hour rehearsal. So that took up a lot of time. I definitely knew what I was doing then.
"I played a lot of small parts. The biggest parts were for the kids, because it's mainly for children. I was the head charity lady. I was a drunken sailor. I was a miner. I was Belle when she's older. I also played a tormented spirit. I had a good time. It was a musical, so there's a lot of singing and dancing."
"It's difficult to read Veronica and imagine that you're ever happy."
"Even if you are a sad person, overall -- and I have gone through periods in my life when I was very sad and very depressed -- I think that if you observe things, it takes you out of it for a minute. Because if you're looking and being interested and fascinated, there is so much beauty in the world; it's hard to be sad while you're doing that.
"I was worried about the end being sentimental. I felt like I was going out on a limb emotionally that I don't usually go out on. So it felt uncomfortable to me. I also worried that I was giving Alison's life a false redemption. But it isn't; she's entitled to have those thoughts and feelings at the end, regardless of what the reader thinks of them. I would not have written an ending like that ten years ago."
"You weren't old enough."
"Exactly. That's exactly what I think. Things that would have seemed sentimental to me in the past don't now. I spent brain cells wondering if people become more sentimental when they get older, and then recently I read Mrs. Dalloway. I can't find it in my bookshelf, so I can't quote it exactly, but at the end, they're having a conversation at the party and they're talking about the difference between young people and middle-aged people, and someone, I think it's Mrs. Dalloway, says, 'Because when you get older you feel more.'
"Around the time I started writing this book, I was starting to experience hormonal changes. I couldn't think as logically as I had in the past. My mind would wander crazily all over the place. It upset me and worried me. I had trouble writing and trouble focusing. If you notice, there's been a long time since my last book, which was 1997.
"I was having trouble writing anything or finishing anything. I thought, 'I've lost it.' But in Veronica, I decided to go with it and let myself make connections that were tangential and make transitions that were hinged on a certain word. When Beckett's Godot, for instance, was puttering happily about in his own abyss, he was brilliant. I think whether you're a genius or not, that's when anyone almost is going to be the strongest."