Sunday, October 17, 2010

Veronica (2005)

Mary Gaitskill's second novel is vastly more skilled than her first, Two Girls, Fat and Thin (which I think is quite good even so), perhaps because it's more on a par with her highly skilled stories, collected in Bad Behavior and Because They Wanted To, which are amazing. Before she is anything else, Mary Gaitskill is an agonizingly precise writer, finicky but breathtakingly inspired, plunging directly into feverish scenes of wanton desperation and madness, drugs and sex and so forth. Her language is engaging yet dazzling; one often feels as though standing in a museum room empty of people, bristling with brilliant and attractive and seductive detail. The action of the plot is irreducibly simple: a woman walks up a hill in San Francisco and remembers things. Out of that, Gaitskill has hatched a world that gleams with veracity and allure and deep wells of connotation, one it's easy to lose oneself in. The woman is named Alison Owen and her walk takes place more or less in the present day. Now facing health issues related to various hazards of aging (hepatitis, in her case, along with a disability), her memories are of then and now, where she was and how she got here, from glamour days in the late '60s and '70s and into the '80s in Paris and New York and across the globe when she worked and earned prolifically as a briefly celebrated fashion model. Alison steps into her past gracefully; it is evidently a place she visits often. Her mind goes a million directions at once, constantly. She takes these walks to help her sleep at night. The titular Veronica is an old friend of hers, one who attempted to stand slightly outside of the milieu of beautiful models and drug addicts and other parasites that she (Veronica) nevertheless found endlessly stimulating. And Veronica managed to find a safe niche for herself with a good vantage, as a freelance proofreader. But alas, those times, she (Veronica) fell in love with the wrong person, acquired HIV, and succumbed early to AIDS. So she is entirely gone during Alison's walk, died years earlier, living on as so much does here almost exclusively in Alison's brooding memory. Veronica may ultimately represent a strange doppelganger for Alison, but Gaitskill patiently whittles out the shapes of her themes, the truths and the sensory details both. The memories churn inside Alison, often about Veronica, and Gaitskill renders them, and the times in which they occur, so vividly that it is uncanny. Even with almost nothing going on, this turns out to be a real page-turner.

In case it's not at the library.

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