Contrary to appearances, the poetics of the neon '80s weren't born in a cocaine-addled vacuum on the Lower East Side. Bret Easton Ellis's strung-out, unreliable first-person narrators knelt at the altar of Norwegian modernist Knut Hamsun. Tama Janowitz, cheerfully down-and-out, thinking about Kant and stepping in dog poop, was a low-rent Beckett. Tender and caustic, Gary Indiana was an updated Lily Bart madly rallying for a room in the house of mirth. Mary Gaitskill was Flannery O'Connor with a flesh wound, spare and emotionally bloody. This was literature with lineage.
In her new novel, Veronica, Gaitskill accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of bringing the '80s into this century. The novel combines the bad luck and despondency of minimalism with the raw, almost devastating intimacy of our present vulnerability—reality TV vulnerability minus the schlock. She is still the troubadour of pathos and tough-girl (sometimes, tough-boy) resilience that we met in the late '80s, a herald of the transgressive, deeply interior art that would succeed the snazzy shock of the literary brat pack. In Gaitskill's world, people take beatings, suffer, and often just have to deal; for that is the substance of what's revealed by the artist's unflinching, naked-making lens.
Throughout two story collections and her 1991 novel, Two Girls, Fat and Thin, Gaitskill has been unrelenting in her depiction of life as cryptic yet suffused with meaning. Her world is not defined by plot paradigms, yet every action has its consequence (it is a sly trick to link cause and effect, while also eschewing plot). Her landscapes are littered with dark hallways and sharp-edged corners. Redemption comes after tortured epiphany and fragile solace—rarely out of heroics.
Veronica goes deeper, more ornately, and more completely than Gaitskill's previous work. Rather than touching down, skewering the essence of an emotion or situation, and then flying blithely yet significantly away—as she does in her short fiction—and rather than building a story out of a simple accumulation of evidence—as in Two Girls, Fat and Thin—here, the author is a careful, lingering dismantler. Veronica is a story that is dismantled into existence, as if the reader were examining a skeleton, bone by bone, without knowing what it was, how it connected, with only the vaguest sense of how it related to the human body.
Veronica—a squat thirty-seven-year-old copy editor who chain-smokes, wears bow ties, talks like an ornery waitress in a truck stop, and got AIDS from her unfaithful bisexual boyfriend—is not the book's protagonist. She is, rather, the foil. The story instead revolves around Alison Owen, a suburban runaway turned supermodel turned temp turned model turned, twenty-five years later, faded beauty with a bum arm and hepatitis C, who cleans offices to supplement her welfare. Alison meets and befriends Veronica during a stint temping in New York City. In the present, Alison looks back on her heyday, reflecting on her naive attempts to comfort the sick woman and trying to make sense of the deep and unlikely attachment they shared. "Most people," criticizes a heartless boyfriend of Alison's after meeting Veronica, "when something like that happens, unless it's a really tight relationship, they run. That's when you became her friend."
In a short essay about Nabokov that appeared in Salon, Gaitskill quotes his comment that art is "beauty plus pity." And it would be hard to find a more apt description of Veronica. "When I knew Veronica," Alison explains, "I was healthy and beautiful, and I thought I was so great for being friends with somebody who was ugly and sick." "Now," she continues, "I'm ugly and sick. . . . Sometimes I'm scared, sometimes I feel like I'm being punished for something, sometimes I feel like I'll be okay. Right now, I'm just glad I don't have to deal with a beautiful girl telling me I have to learn to love myself." Here is beauty wrestling with pity.
Alison's beauty is a spectacular conceit. Her good looks determine the awkward course of her life and how she inhabits it. Undoubtedly this is an unfamiliar, even abstract, portrait of modeling—all of the bile, backstory, and destructiveness, none of the glamour or gossip—and, true, Alison has the emotional complexity and heart-rending articulateness of a poet ("Come, said the music, to joy and speed and secret endlessness, where everything tumbles together and attachments are not made of sad flesh"). But our heroine is, after all, a model—the single most explicit expression of physical, superficial beauty in a contemporary setting. When she arrives in the hospital after the car accident that effectively ends her career, she hisses at a nurse, "If you fuck up my ears, I swear I'll sue you . . . I'm a model and I can't have fucked-up ears." This is beauty the way that Tennessee Williams might have imagined it—incidental, corrosive, impotent, and ravaged.
Alison may traffic in beauty, but she speaks in terms of ugliness. Beauty is the paradigm and paradox. It lives on the surface, but in Alison's view, when it's powerful, or real, it encompasses ugliness and works on every sensory level. This is a model through Alison's eyes: "On the runway, she was a bolt of lightning in a white Chanel dress. She turned and gave a look. Thumping music took you into the lower body, where the valves and pistons were working. You caught a dark whiff of shit, the sweetness of cherries, and the laughter of girls. Like lightning, the contrast cut down the center of the earth: We all eat and shit, screw and die. But here is Beauty in a white dress. Here is the pumping music, grinding her into meat and dirt. Here are the other girls coming in waves to refill Beauty's slot. . . . Everyone applauded—and no wonder." When Alison sees herself in the mirror or in a picture, she sees distortion. She's our tour guide through her own story, but if she weren't winning international modeling contests, flying to Paris, and living off her looks, we'd have no evidence directly from her that she was anything but hideous.
And as eloquent as Alison is on the subject of beauty, she is stumped by feelings of compassion: "I was thinking of myself presenting my body without bodily reality, my face exaggerated by makeup and artificial feeling, suspended forever on an imaginary brink, eyes dimmed and looking at nothing. I thought of [Veronica's dead lover Duncan] dancing in a dark place that glinted with hidden sharpness, his face set in curious determination. I thought of Veronica with her penny loafers and her fussy socks. But my thoughts were naked, and I had no words for them." Her pity is genuine, constant, and hapless. She slings it here and there, failing Veronica and herself time and again. "I'm sorry you have AIDS," she says in a dream, "and the insipid words were loathsome, even to me."
Veronica's steely, laconic "armor of pain sculpted to look like sophistry" is a perfect counterpoint to Alison's flailing pity. Alison lamely presents Veronica with a self-help book for people with AIDS that recommends trying to love your body parts, "especially any part you felt shame about," and Veronica laughs herself silly picturing "all those fags chanting, 'I love my ass.'" Both women cultivate detachment but crave love. "I wanted to love," says Alison, "But I didn't realize how badly I had been hurt. I didn't realize that my habit of distance had become so unconscious and deep that I didn't know how to be with another person." Alison is in a constant state of revelation and just as constantly embracing delusion. She is pragmatic and self-aware, awkward, self-destructive, and on the defensive. As Gaitskill explains in that same essay on Nabokov—revealing in one fell swoop Alison's distance and the shape of her story—"It is [his] detached, aerial view that allows a wide range of feeling in all its unpredictable, oscillating movement."
The almost painful simplicity of the novel's premise—a relationship between two women, examined over the course of twenty-five years, a morbid dance of sickness, beauty, and pity—earns its simplicity through an extraordinary and elusive structure. Tragedies and the complicated relationships they engender are splintered, parsed, and revisited, finally revealing the integrity of their grain. A climactic scene might just as easily appear on page 15 as on 215. Time swirls and doubles back on itself organically. Characters are plundered, offering more and more of their story, until they are the story.
The last time they see each other before Veronica dies, Alison impulsively reaches out and touches Veronica's collarbone—a physical gesture of comfort emerging spontaneously, like a single clear note breaking through silence. She cracks Veronica's shell and then turns away. "My cruelty had been pointless. My kindness had been pointless," she later realizes. "I never should've touched her like that and then turned around and left, leaving her chest opened and defenseless against the feeling that might come into it—feelings of love and friendship left unrequited once more."
But reckless, failed gestures are the most tentative seeds of redemption in this novel of decline. Pity, in the end, is an imperfect expression of something essentially, perfectly beautiful. As Veronica explains, "How do you think Stalin and Hitler wound
up killing so many people? They were trying to fix them. To make them ideal . . . there's violence in that, hon." Gaitskill's epiphany remains unchanged—the story, no matter what it may be, is essentially to be found in imperfection. What time has brought to Gaitskill's story is the meat, the flesh of humanity, which bears exquisite imperfection.
Minna Proctor is the author of Do You Hear What I Hear: Religious Calling, the Priesthood, and My Father, published this year by Viking.