At the heart of this most anti-sentimental of novels is a sentimental story: a young model, beautiful on the outside but hideous within, befriends an aging, overweight proofreader who is beautiful on the inside but on the outside resembles “a human cuckoo clock.” By loving the eccentric fat old woman, the beautiful skinny young woman rediscovers her own humanity.
That is the story, at least, promoted by Veronica’s press copy and most of the reviews it received at the time of publication. It is also the story suggested by the novel’s prefatory chapter, in which the novel’s narrator, Alison Owen, is read a fairy tale by her mother. In the tale, a wicked and very beautiful little girl is transformed into a statue as punishment. She can only be rescued, explains Alison’s mother, “by the tears of an innocent girl. Like you.”
But Alison is not innocent for long. Innocence, in Mary Gaitskill’s fiction, serves as little more than a semaphore to attract sexual predators. Even before being raped in her first modeling shoot, Alison has seen more than most teenagers. At 16 she runs away from home, finding shelter in flophouses and boyfriends’ apartments in San Francisco, selling flowers outside of the strip clubs in North Beach, and dodging the advances of pimps.
She is at ease in the demimonde, enchanted by the promises of danger, sex, and meanness: “Like a cat in the dark, your whisker touched something the wrong way and you backed out. Except sometimes it was a trap baited with something so enticing, you pushed your face in anyway.” Alison is often pushing her face in. Briefly she returns home to her family, but she soon becomes bored and heads back to the streets. Later, after an abusive interlude as a model in Paris, she moves to New York City, in search of ever more “life and sex and cruelty.”
Veronica, the daffy overweight proofreader, is not innocent either. Her boyfriend, Duncan, is promiscuous and bisexual, facts that she knows but pretends not to. After Duncan dies of AIDS, Veronica tests positive for HIV. She is not surprised; on some level she already knew. When Alison mentions being raped by a modeling agent, Veronica’s response is pitiless: “Every pretty girl has a story like that, hon. I had that prettiness. I have those stories. I don’t have to do that anywhere, though. It’s my show now.”
But Veronica is not really Veronica’s show. She is only barely more prominent than the older photographer boyfriends who abuse Alison, and the sisters and parents who are baffled by Alison’s errant behavior. The novel unfolds in a fugue haze, eliding Alison’s childhood, her young adulthood as a model in the Eighties, and her present manifestation as a washed-up, unemployable single woman living alone in San Francisco with chronic injuries, whose survival depends on the pity of old friends. Gaitskill slides frictionlessly between these eras, often several times within a single paragraph. The effect is disorienting but never confusing. Veronica draws its narrative logic from associations more than chronology. Still it is chronology—the passage of time, specifically—that is Gaitskill’s main theme.
Styles change over time but people don’t. This presents a quandary. Are the variable ways in which we mark our identity—dress, personal style, behavior—merely empty poses? If so, how can we know ourselves?
There is always a style suit, or suits. When I was young, I used to think these suits were just what people were. When styles changed dramatically—people going barefoot, men with long hair, women without bras—I thought the world had changed, that from then on everything would be different…but then five years later it changed again…For a while, “we” were loving; then we were alienated and angry, then ironic, then depressed. Although we are at war with terror, fashion magazines say we are sunny now. We wear bright colors and choose moral clarity. While I was waiting to get a blood test last week, I read in a newsmagazine that terror must not change our sunny dispositions.
The last line is a pale joke: Alison has never been guilty of a sunny disposition. But the question haunts the novel. Is Alison the loving daughter and sister of her childhood, the callous waif of her modeling adolescence, the caring companion of a dying friend, or the adrift, ill woman who must rely on handouts from old friends? She is all of these people, of course, but also none of them. She drifts between personalities as casually as she drifts between sexual partners and cities and careers, as casually as the novel drifts between decades.
Veronica is brave in its rebuke of moral clarity, its ease with ambiguity and contradiction. Most good novels are: fiction, at its highest levels, asks the difficult questions, those that can’t always be answered, though it is the asking that brings enlightenment. Still there was a radical quality to Gaitskill’s novel in 2005, a time of bright colors and moral clarity—the year in which Michael Brown did “a heck of a job” coordinating the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, national politicians spoke with unerring certainty about the interior state of a nonresponsive, comatose woman on life support, and U.S. inspectors ended their search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. “I will not wait on events,” declared President Bush in his 2005 State of the Union address, “while dangers gather.”
It was also a time of moral certainty in popular literature. In a New York Review of Books essay about Veronica, Lorin Stein identified the novels of Jonathan Safran Foer, David Foster Wallace, Benjamin Kunkel, and Jonathan Franzen as representative as the new “corrective grain in American fiction,” which sought “to recall us to a set of shared values, the plainer the better.”
These novels rallied against insincerity, apathy, and cynicism—qualities that defined much of the fiction of the previous two decades. Gaitskill, like her characters, has no use for shared values, and plenty of use for cynicism. Even in Veronica’s denouement, when Alison finds some measure of peace in her broken body and dim future, her triumph is muted. She does not hope for transcendence or the purity of moral certainty. She hopes merely to “become human.” Humanity, with its manifold cruelties and fitful euphorias, would be enough.
Other notable novels published in 2005:
The March by E.L. DoctorowThe Painted Drum by Louise ErdrichEnvy by Kathryn HarrisonHome Land by Sam LipsyteNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthyA Changed Man by Francine Prose
Pulitzer Prize:Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
National Book Award:Europe Central by William T. Vollmann
Bestselling novel of the year:The Broker by John Grisham
About this series:
This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2013. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.
1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux1992—Clockers by Richard Price2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain1903—The Call of the Wild by Jack London1913—O Pioneers! By Willa Cather1923—Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton1933—Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West1943—Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles1953—Junky by William S. Burroughs1963—The Group by Mary McCarthy1973—The Princess Bride by William Goldman1983—Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright1993—The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle2003—The Known World by Edward P. Jones2013—Equilateral by Ken Kalfus1904—The Golden Bowl by Henry James1914—Penrod by Booth Tarkington1924—So Big by Edna Ferber1934—Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara1944—Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith1954—The Bad Seed by William March1964—Herzog by Saul Bellow1974—Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig1984—Neuromancer by William Gibson1994—The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields2004—The Plot Against America by Philip Roth2014—The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez1905—The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton1915—Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman1925—Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos1935—Pylon by William Faulkner1945—If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes1955—Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov1965—The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick1975—The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey1985—White Noise by Don DeLillo1995—Independence Day by Richard Ford