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Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Book review: Veronica, Mary Gaitskill (2005)

This strange novel emotes frantically about many things that seem central to modern society but I fear in the end it’s merely an indictment of the American education system. It has in it some of the odd-shaped ideas that Virginia Woolf discovered for use in her novels.

This the story of Alison Owen who in the early 1980s (I presume) leaves home when she’s still a minor and travels from New Jersey to San Francisco and does odd jobs – selling flowers to couples leaving restaurants is the most prominent – but then gets caught up in modelling. The gigs she lands take her to Paris where the abuse she has already suffered continues and she ends up back in the States. She befriends a woman she works with for a time at an agency that fills temporary roles in offices, whose lover, a man named Duncan, contracts AIDS and dies. The woman, Veronica, also comes down with the disease and it is the friendship that endures between the two women in the face of the stigma that attached to the disease at the time that animates the narrative. In the end, Veronica of course dies but the friendship ends up being the only thing that contributes to engendering a sense of purpose for Alison in her topsy-turvy life.

You wonder about the quality of the feelings that Alison experiences, and also about the ways she realises them in her life, that enable her to live such a ramshackle existence. One day in Los Angeles, she is in a car accident as she is being driven to a job by a friend named John. Complications stemming from that event continue to plague her throughout her life and on top of that she contracts hepatitis. One of her sisters, Sara, works in a nursing home and the other, Daphne, has a steady job and a family, but Alison just has her memories of Veronica to comfort her in her middle age and afterward.

The other thing to note here is the lack of universal health care: you have to keep a job in order to get health insurance and without health insurance you can’t afford to pay the doctors you need to treat the disease that is slowly killing you. It’s a sad state of affairs that American still struggles with today.

Gaitskill’s writing is impressionistic and evocative, but the way that Alison appears throughout the story does little to give you much confidence about her judgement. She seems always to be dealing in a line that you might not want to take home and is nothing if not an unreliable narrator. The introduction to the novel was written in about 2014 and in it the author describes how she had met a woman named June who, in 1987, came down with AIDS. She describes June’s personality and the way her essential humanity had always made itself apparent through the mask of her public persona. The book was written in a first draft in 1992.

Alison might therefore be taken as a version, in many respects, of the author. If so, it is a strange personality you find here. Alison seems in the final analysis to live by maxims learned from listening to songs played on juke boxes, which is a kind of existential failing that she might have inherited from her father, who also loves music. In the introduction, Gaitskill recounts how she had moved from New York to Marin County, in California, and had then occupied a house for the first time in her life. She also says that it was then that she for the first time in her life owned a TV. She also says she read magazines. You wonder when you read her novel if her character Alison ever reads a book, but there is no evidence in it of such an occurrence. Presumably Gaitskill herself did read novels of some sort before attempting to write one of her own.

The mixing up of the protagonist and the author in the preceding paragraph is something I am aware of, and I apologise for any confusion that might have entailed. I have tried to keep the two distinct, but it seems to me that this novel is an early exemplar of the kind of novel that is written based on autobiographical material. There are many authors these days who do this, From Karl Ove Knausgaard to Rachel Cusk. But Gaitskill was an innovator in this sense, and should be acknowledged as such.

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