Mary Gaitskill’s fine novel “Veronica” explores the links between beauty and ugliness.
Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. (Pantheon, 227 pp., $23)
By Harvey Blume
Mary Gaitskill’s new novel brings to mind “Bohemia Lies by the Sea,” a painting by the contemporary German artist Anselm Kiefer. Kiefer’s large canvas (at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art) is built up out of tarry, turd-like blobs that exude all the charm of a compost heap — from up close, that is. From the other end of the gallery, though, if you turn back to glance at it, “Bohemia Lies by the Sea” transforms itself into a gorgeous rendering of a field of flowers. Beauty is separated from crap by a trick of the eye, the painting seems to say: as different as they may be, they are also intimately related.
Author Mary Gaitskill explores the curious crap-to-beauty connection at length in “Veronica.” Gaitskill is the author of a previous novel and of numerous short stories, one of which became the basis for “Secretary,” a film about sadomasochistic love. Besides her familiarity with kink, Gaitskill is known for the power she packs into imagery and descriptions. “Veronica” shows how imagery is a conceptual tool in her writing; it lets her work comfortably with large, Kiefer-like contrasts and contradictions.
Here, for example, is the impression Allison, the narrator of “Veronica,” has of people dancing, circa 1975: “They didn’t pay any attention to the rhythm of the music. They danced to its secret personality — clownish and gross, like something big and dumb stuck in a tar pit and trying to walk its way out with brute force. Like being stuck and gross was something great.”
This passage is terrific even without the last sentence, which refers you back for yet one more take on the intriguing reflection Gaitskill has just delivered. What other writer is able to combine such loose-joined prose with such maverick brilliance?
Another example: We’re on the West Coast now, in something like present time, where an older Allison dwells above a canal whose water is “filthy with gas and garbage and maybe turds.” The filth factor doesn’t deter Freddie, a chubby neighbor, from gleefully diving in. The spectacle of Freddie paddling around in scummy water never fails to disgust Bianca, a faded beauty. Bianca just can’t stand Freddie’s gross elan, his “beat-up but still leaping out into the turds for a swim quality.” Allison sympathizes with Bianca because she is “a refined person, and I like refinement, too.” But Allison doesn’t frown on Freddie, either. In fact, his antics make her think back to a sea lion she had once seen gliding in toward shore.
The floating turd, the gliding sea lion — Allison has been tuned to that kind of contrast for most of her life. As a teenager, she ran away from her dowdy, decent New Jersey parents and, for a while, led the cocaine-fueled high life of a fashion model in Paris and Rome. She’s in her fifties now, however, and “the weakness, the sick stomach, and the fever” arising from the hepatitis C she contracted long ago are getting worse. She goes for long walks, ruminating about the cast of characters she has known in her life, starting with her parents.
Naturally, neither of them could have condoned the search for “sex and cruelty” that drove her away from them. The real divide between Allison and her parents runs along aesthetic lines. Allison faults them because, in common with the rest of their supposedly liberated generation, they disowned and “distrusted the sentimental thrill of putting beauty next to shit.”
Allison happens to be hooked on just that thrill. She looks at the world through Kiefer lenses and always finds shit and beauty entangled. She recalls, for example, how much Alana, a model she worked with, liked to tell tales involving “enemas and shit,” and “farting in [a] boyfriend’s face.” But that is just one side of Alana, the off-stage Alana. Alana on the runway, though, turns into “a bolt of lightning,” writes Allison. “We all eat and shit, screw, and die. But here is beauty in a white dress.”
Descriptions of this kind, delicious as they are, do slow the novel down. Sooner or later you wonder, where’s this going? Why the fuss about Veronica. Why name the novel for her? Veronica, after all, is just an office worker Allison meets in New York when her modeling career crashes, and her agent, who has made off with her money, foils her attempts to get it restarted.
But Allison’s still just twenty-one and beautiful. Veronica, on the other hand, at thirty-seven, is a chubby, bleached blond, nothing, it would appear, like Allison’s glamorous Parisian pals. All the same, what Allison sees in Veronica is the same tangy mix of “elegance and ugliness” she savored in Alana. The resemblance shows up in little things, like the way Veronica would “take a sip of tea, properly dab her lips, and call her boyfriend a ‘c[…]’.”
Often Veronica’s affectations, including the “hard showiness” of her voice, turn Allison off — all the more so, when it turns out that her “c[…]” of a boyfriend has managed to give Veronica AIDS, and that she’s dying of it. Though she tells herself that Veronica “wanted to be a victim,” and that, “people like Veronica dragged everyone down,” Allison is also aware that pain has had an unexpected effect on Veronica, making her “deep, whether she liked it or not.”
Allison’s coming to terms with Veronica’s suffering gives her, and the novel, heart. She cares, or at least cares mightily about caring. Compassion appears to be the path that will lead her beyond the tantalizing interplay of crap and beauty — maybe. But it sometimes seems that Allison protests too much about having learned to love Veronica. And it could be a flaw in the novel that Gaitskill doesn’t make the new, compassionate Allison completely convincing.
Or it may be that here, as in her marvelous descriptions that double back on themselves with more questions and comments, Gaitskill isn’t interested in finality. Especially when it comes to crap and beauty, she prefers to leave the matter open.
Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.