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Veronica by Mary Gaitskill

Prose Poetry

Mary Gaitskill's novel Veronica tells the story of the hepatitis-riddled narrator, Alison, who, in middle age, looks back on her experiences as a child runaway and fashion model. The novel spans one day of Alison's present life as a cleaner in San Rafael. Debilitated by a car accident and anchored to the past by her vivid memories, Alison relives the defining moments of her life through a patchwork of grim recollections. She recounts everything -- her parents' separation, cynical sex with model scouts, her friend Veronica's death from AIDS -- with the same detached but penetrating tone.

There is a steady, nostalgic poetry to Gaitskill's prose, and a poignancy of focus reminiscent of Don De Lillo. Within the narrative itself, as with the characters in the novel, there is always beauty just below the surface. Gaitskill takes external elements -- the stare of a man, the eyes of a tramp -- and imbues them with resigned poignancy. Through this, Alison is able to coax meaning from the ostensibly unremarkable things around her. There are cracks in the narrative -- not chronological or factual cracks, but emotional -- through which Gaitskill pokes Alison's inescapable sadness. Present tense, middle-aged Alison notes, "the past coming through the present", and flatly states, "it happens." The whole novel is testament to the fact.

Gaitskill depicts characters, timeworn and stoical characters, redolent of the culture that produced them. To call them victims would be lazy. As with de Lillo's Eric Packer in Cosmopolis, Gaitskill's Alison Owen absorbs and defines her culture, all the while commenting on the processes that shape it and shape her. She is a sore-armed monument to the cultural truths of yesterday, moving in time to its music and its whims. Young Alison rides on her indifference, sensing the quiet desperation of one character and, in the same glance, the "closed-faced" antipathy of another.

Gaitskill's real skill is in her ability to extract and decoct the essence of things -- people, places, eras -- with a quiet deftness of description that appears effortless. She brilliantly conveys the blinking, wide-eyed younger Alison through voice of the older Alison, a character who is now in tune with the poignant, funny, tragic and inexpressible things that surrounded her in her youth. She collects these "unsaid things" and makes, in her own jumbled way, a logic and humility that allow her to forgive her parents, siblings and exploiters alike.

What Veronica is about is hard to say, as the novel takes in a range of themes. Yes, it's about Alison's friendship with Veronica, as the title suggests. But it's also about AIDS, 60s cultural fallout, 80s cultural decay, the interaction of inner, mental processes with outer, social processes, and exploitation. But, as with all good novels, to paraphrase it would be to reduce it and to explain it adequately would be to write out the novel in full.

When Fitzgerald described his later short stories as "signalling the death of his young illusions", his was the voice of an author looking back on lost innocence and love. In Mary Gaitskill's Veronica we find a similar eulogy to the illusions of youth, but also a celebration of the deeper understanding and wider emotional vocabulary that growing old affords.

Veronica by Mary Gaitskill
Pantheon Books
Hardcover/$23.00
ISBN: 0-375-42145-9
227 pages