:: Article


By Charlotte Stretch.


Mary Gaitskill, Veronica, Serpent’s Tail ed., 2007

Mary Gaitskill is not known for her reticence. Her writing debut in 1989, a collection of short stories nonchalantly titled Bad Behaviour, was a frank study of date rape, sadomasochism and kinky sex. Since then she has forged a reputation for fresh, edgy writing that thrills and outrages the reader in equal measure. Veronica is, in many ways, no different; except in this case, all that boundary-smashing rebelliousness is applied to the very structure of the novel.

Narrator Alison, once a glitteringly hip and successful model, recalls her heyday in 1980s New York, a memory inextricably tied up with the story of her old friend Veronica, a glamorous and sardonic proofreader suffering from AIDS. There are so many things captured within this dreamy and disjointed narrative, it is often hard to keep focused. Alison is a schizophrenic storyteller, often switching from the present to the past, and vice versa, within a single sentence. We may applaud Gaitskill’s refusal to be confined in her writing but in practice it means that Veronica is often far more demanding than it ought to be. Adopting a relentless condition of fluidity, there are some genuinely beautiful moments here but the main thread of the novel remains maddeningly ungraspable.

The one exception to this is the character of Veronica herself, one of the most delightfully enjoyable treats within Gaitskill’s writing. A woman professionally obsessed by detail, she emerges as the most clearly-defined character in the novel. Created in the same mould as Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca de Winter, she floats relentlessly over the surface of the novel, inextinguishable from Alison’s memories. Her sardonic humour and matter-of-fact attitude clash with her charismatic and compelling allure – a mix that leads one character to describe her as “like Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings combined”. Like Rebecca, her illness and inevitable death is never a bodily tragedy but rather a social one; the ramifications of AIDS are measured against the New York culture of arty, underground communities populated by beauty-driven models and photographers.

As for Alison herself, one often wishes that she had the same gusto as the woman whose story she essentially devotes herself to. The brief anecdotes she recounts concerning her own life story often point to a woman of ferocious strength, but it is hard to tally that with the passive and unremarkable figure we are presented with in more detailed passages.

Even if such apparent inconsistencies jar with the reader, however, it is worth noting how neatly such devices illustrate the tension between solid reality and shadowy memory. Alison is only able to confront the cold, hard facts of AIDS years after her friend’s death; at such distance from the event, however, are they really anything more than figments of the past? Similarly, the New York cityscape with its chic nightclubs and torrid sexual encounters is evoked to disarmingly realistic effect; but there is always a hint at the grimmest of truths, one that constantly stalks the nostalgic recollections of our narrator.

The fact remains, however, that while we can identify the meanings and ideas which drive the novel’s key devices, the execution never quite matches the thinking behind it. Veronica is tricksy without being rewarding; glamorous without being solid. There is no doubt that this is exactly the novel Gaitskill intended to write, and we should certainly applaud her for her bold and daring approach; even within the novel, there are certain things that a reader can admire. Beyond that, however, one is left with nothing except a set of empty and hollow memories.

Charlotte Stretch lives in Brixton where she is a freelance writer and an editor of 3:AM. She is currently working on her first novel.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, December 8th, 2007.