Monday, September 18, 2006

Mary Gaitskill: Veronica

Reviewed by: Lawrence Richette

I don't know Lawrence Richette, but he has written an honest and excellent review.


Mary Gaitskill is, beyond any doubt, the finest short story writer of my literary generation. Both BAD BEHAVIOR and BECAUSE THEY WANTED TO contain stories that will be read as long as people voluntarily read American fiction. I am thinking in particular of "The Girl On The Plane" in the latter collection, which may be the best story anyone in America has written in the past twenty years.

Until now, though, Gaitskill's reputation has rested on her stories. Her first novel, TWO GIRLS FAT AND THIN, came as a severe disappointment to most of her ardent fans. Gaitskill seemed to be doing too many things at once, a not uncommon fault of first novels. She was dramatizing a bizarre, quasi-lesbian relationship between the two girls, while also trying to write a novel of ideas--the book contains a laborious parody of Ayn Rand's Objectivism, which Gaitskill called Definitism.

But last year Gaitskill published VERONICA, which for all its faults, and none of them are fatal, is probably the most beautifully written American novel I have read in the past decade. It was deservedly nominated for the National Book Award in 2005, showing that the literary Establishment is not altogether without taste.

"We were stupid for disrespecting the limits placed before us. For tearing up the fabric of songs wise enough to acknowledge limits. For making songs of rape and death and then disappearing inside them. For trying to go everywhere and know everything. We were stupid, spoiled, and arrogant. But we were right, too. We were right to do it even so."

This is the reflective, grieving voice of Alison, a formel model now living with hepatitis C in Marin County, reflecting on her Eighties from the perspective of the new millennium. VERONICA is brilliantly structured around an ordinary day in Alison's life, during which she remembers her friendship with Veronica, whom she met during a brief spell of office work in Manhattan.

When the book opens, Veronica has already died of AIDS-- a plot point which Gaitskill deliberately reveals as early as possible, so that she can get down to the real subjects of her novel, which I take to be the way memory works and, even more important, the distance between the glittery, empty decade the Eighties turned out to be and the numbed years of the Age of Bush.

Alison runs away from her home in New Jersey and ends up first in San Francisco, where a sleazy catalogue agent more or less rapes her, then in Paris and Rome, then back in New Jersey, where she finds that her family has fallen apart because her mother has left her father. It is in these scenes of domestic life that Gaitskill achieves a new tenderness . Alison has two younger sisters, Daphne and Sara, who react very differently to the separation of their parents. Gaitskill surpasses herself in the scenes involving Alison's kid sisters, reminding me that for all her transgressive qualities, Gaitskill is at heart a realist, and a precise and disciplined realist at that.

Like most Gaitskill heroines, Alison experiences sex as domination and humiliation. Alain, "the most powerful agent in Europe," into whose hands Alison falls in Paris, is also the only man Alison seems to love. He glories in betraying her, first sexually, then by embezzling the money Alison thinks she has stashed in a Swiss bank account. The sex in VERONICA is no more graphic than Gaitskill usually describes, but for the first time she has managed to integrate it successfully into a full-length narrative.

In TWO GIRLS Justine Shade, the narrator, was too much the would-be dominatrix, and the novel ended with a quasi-lesbian coupling that left me wondering why Gaitskill couldn't have thought of a more original conclusion. Here, on the other hand, the sexual passages are not only sharply observed and beautifully written, they are always in service to the larger design:

"Fucking Gregory Carson was like falling down the rabbit hole and seeing things fly by without knowing what they meant. Except I WAS the rabbit hole at the same time...I was on my back and he on his knees; he grabbed my ankles and spread my legs over my head until my pelvis split all the way open...his stomach stuck out like a proud drum and I could feel his asshole alight and tingling on the edge of his spine. His face looked like he was saying, Remember this when they're taking your picture. Remember THIS."

Thus Alison recalling her first, degrading fuck with the sleazy catalogue agent in San Francisco. I am not giving away any trade secrets of fiction writing when I point out that sex scenes may be the hardest of all types of scenes for a contemporary novelist to manage. Gaitskill pulls off the trick beautifully here. As always, she strikes a perfect balance between the ugliness of the action and the exact justice of her observations.

What keeps VERONICA from being the fully realized masterpiece it could have become is Gaitskill's unfortunate tendency to overwrite. It may well be that she labored too many years over this particular piece of fiction. For some odd reason, Gaitskiill's stylistic ear almost never betrays her in her short stories. In VERONICA, however, her well-known love for Nabokov results in over-jewelled sentences like this alliterative clunker:

"(Somewhere the driver is still trying to change his tire while his rotating red light rhythmically drenches the dirt and sweeps the sky.)"

Gaitskill, for all the virtuousity she displays in VERONICA, remains an essentially realistic and quotidian writer, a poet of the everyday rather than a fabulist. I fear she does not understand her own strengths and weaknesses. Nabokov, her god, is the most single pernicious influence on English-language fiction in the last fifty years, followed closely by Thomas Pynchon. What Nabokov did, at his best, is unrepeatable.

For one thing, you need to be multilingual, as he was and no American novelist (to my knowledge) is, to pull off the magical effects he achieved in the English language. For another, Gaitskill--like the infinitely less talented Martin Amis--seems to be a captive to the theory that every sentence must be beautiful or at least striking. This is a tactical and strategic error. It results, in VERONICA, in a novel that demands the sort of patient, leisurely reading that almost nobody except a die-hard Gaitskill fan will give a novel.

But VERONICA, for all its faults, remains the most beautiful novel I or any of my literary contemporaries have managed to achieve so far. There is more thought and feeling in any paragraph of Gaitskill's prose than in an entire novel by Jay McInerney. I only hope that Gaitskill continues to write novels, perhaps spending less time at the word processor and (paradoxical as this sounds) writing faster. There is an energy and a freedom to VERONICA, when Gaitskill is firing on all cylinders, that reminded me of why I had always spoken of her writing with such reverence to my friends.

This elegy to the Eighties speaks to all of us who were young in that decade, whether or not we were female, whether or not we were models. VERONICA avoids the twin pitfalls of sentimentality and banality by the exquisite blend of artful structure (one day in Alison's life and memories) with the precision of Gaitskill's observations. If the novel finally does not succeed at the highest level, it is nevertheless so much better than anything anyone our age has pulled off that its faults are irrelevant next to the surface tension Gaitskill creates.

Reading her for me, as a survivor of the Eighties who did time in Manhattan, was like dipping into a pack of Proustian madeleines. I remain convinced that Mary Gaitskill is the most authentic and gifted writer of fiction under fifty in America.

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