Veronica. Mary Gaitskill.

Gaitskill, Mary. Veronica. Vintage Contemporary, New York 2005. Electronic version for Kindle. F;12/15.

Most of the time at a restaurant I like the first course more than the main. I’m hungrier. Or it’s just the rush of gratification, at least briefly delayed, now achieved: something wonderful is finally put in front of me, and with some ceremony.

Whatever, this book gave me the same experience. It started off with enough schmecht to have me quoting sentences to my wife. But pretty quickly, like around page 20, two things spoiled my appetite. It lost its way trying to turn creatures of imagination into something coherent. And then I was slugged in the stomach by what I call the sick dynamic: an author relying on illness as a literary device. Between those two disappointments any shred of my not getting fed up before dinner was over was down the garborator.

The novel starts with a Greek chorus. The narrator’s mum tells her little daughter a morally ambiguous fairy tale about a pretty girl who gets greedy. Then we cut to the present. Our narrator lives on a canal. It’s reality. She shows us she can pass around a nice amuse-gueule:

Every day, my neighbor Freddie leaps off his deck and into the canal for a swim. This disgusts my neighbor Bianca. “I asked him, ‘Don’t you know what’s in there? Don’t you know it’s like swimming in a public toilet?’ ” Bianca is a sexy fifty-year-old, sexy even though she’s lost her looks, mainly because of her big fat lips. “He doesn’t care; he says he just takes a hot shower after.” Bianca draws on her cigarette with her big lips. “Probably get typhoid.” She blows out with a neat turn of her head; even her long ropy neck is sort of sexy. “I hate the sight of him flying through the air in that little Speedo, God!”

… this is appetizing. Maybe I didn’t need Bianca’s fat lips, but Superman Freddie and the way Bianca turns her head have my attention.

This seductive loss-leader however evaporates when I trundle my heavy cart down looking for some more interesting groceries in the back of the store. It’s all about the poor narrator! She’s been to the top of the modelling game with her stockmarket-spike looks. There’s a big sexy exhibit of the venal, monetary, revengeful, nasty-as-hell world of modelling in Paris, in case we were worried that things (as we see they’re going to once narrator ages) might start to taste a bit stale. Sex in Paris is a rich European spread of whatever delicacies wet your appetite. But at some point the bill has to be paid. Too bad baby, once your novelty wears off you’re as hot as last year’s pedal pushers and the man with the credit card’s attention is on the teenager at the next table. You’re standing on the sidewalk looking in at the flattering lights and goodies you can’t afford any more.

Now our poor girl is fiftyish and worn out. Her friend, titular Veronica, went a similar way. Until she died of HIV.

The high-stakes luxury platters and fucking on satin sheets turn into sagging upper arms and no money, and we poor readers have left (besides the startling insight that beauty is only skin deep) to keep us happy only the cutthroat writing that got us excited in the first few pages. Long cleared away however are those first-course setting and character details. The main-menu fun relies on figurative writing that starts to spin out of control and goes from bad to worse:

(Veronica’s) exterior became to me like a vast prickly thicket broken by patches of ice and tiny, weirdly pursed receptors built only to receive what they’d heard before. It was boring and ugly. You couldn’t talk to it.

… and worse:

I imagine Veronica lying on her couch, descending slowly into darkness, the electronic ribbon of television sound breaking into particles of codified appetites, the varied contexts of which must have been impossible to remember.

What’s wrong here? Couldn’t this be John Ashbery-style incoherence through which we can somehow discern an emotional or aesthetic intact string? I don’t see it. I’m okay with an electronic ribbon of television sound, and I can even imagine it breaking into particles, but those particles aren’t “codified appetites” in any world my imagination can appreciate the “varied contexts” of.

There is some redemption. Family relationships are deeply felt. Dad loves the popular music of the 50s:

“Stafford’s voice is darker and sadder,” he said. “But it’s warmer, too. She holds the song in her voice. Day’s voice is sweet, but it’s heartless— she doesn’t hold it; she touches it and lets go— she doesn’t mean it! Stafford is a lover; Day is a flirt— but what a cute flirt!”

“Um-hm,” said my mother, and she gritted her teeth on her way out of the room.

The pace is fast, the tropes strange and personal, and the crazy momentum impressive. In spite of inconsistencies or maybe because of them Gaitskill’s writing reminded me of Henry Miller. But Miller wrote in mid-20th-century America with momentum powered by sex. This is today, and the momentum is powered by illness. Poor sick me.

I’ve made a fuss about illness in literature before. My problem is I find it disappointing when something that looks like it’s going to be exciting or interesting starts relying for its substance on throwing up or losing its hair. The more specific, the worse:

Now I’m ugly and sick. I don’t know how long I’ve had hepatitis— probably about fifteen years. It’s only been in the last year that the weakness, the sick stomach, and the fever have kicked up.

Gaitskill’s writing in Veronica is a bit like the early life of her narrator: gorgeous to behold, but its sweet promise isn’t kept. I’m sure I’m being unfair and over-the-top, as usual. If I were doing this for a living I would dwell more on the writer’s charm and warmth and gutsy stark perceptions which crop up at least intermittently. I would leave the door open for wonderful things in the future and on balance conclude that there’s a lot to love about this book. The trouble is I’m too old for that. Old, but so far not sick. And when I get sick, god help me if I make my illness, encouraged by the uniquely American sick-entitlement, into something fascinating and special.

The experience of illness like all strongly felt experience is special. But disease is so grotesquely understood in modern medicine, a perception that is reliably reflected in creativity like we see in this book, that anyone with a real illness would be far better off just having their own experience, not cozying  up to a special abstract scientific understanding of hepatitis, cancer, or HIV as though they were luminescent metaphors for evil, and as if we shared some mystical but technical control over it.  Better off letting the technicians get on with their occasionally helpful business and making the most of our hard, sometimes final, few miles.

I wish I were as talented as Mary Gaitskill, and not this squeaky voice in outer blogospace criticizing her. But I don’t mind carrying on looking for the kind of creativity that delivers satisfaction all the way through desert. Better luck next time. 7.0/7.8.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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