Sunday, November 29, 2009

The strip of light under the door

In Mary Gaitskill's most recent novel, the main character spends a lot of time reflecting on people she's known — both the nurturing and the toxic. Sometimes they are one and the same.

"Her tears splash scalding hot on her daughter's face," the story goes. "Even though they are tears cried for love, they do not bring healing; they burn and make the pain worse. My mother's tears scalded me and I hated her for it."

As you can probably surmise, this novel, called "Veronica," is a dark one. Of course, if you know anything about Gaitskill, you know that's to be expected. While I was reading it, I had mixed reactions — at times I thought the novel was overly dour — but by the end it had won me over with its odd mix of painful reflection and calm acceptance. I also enjoyed Gaitskill's incisive prose throughout.

If you're not a reader but recognize Gaitskill's name, that's probably because she wrote the short story that inspired the movie "Secretary," with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal. (This is a bit ironic because, while a lot of people rave about that film, in my view it offers a Hollywood-ized, too-happy interpretation of Gaitskill's vision.)

Though it's been out a few years, I first heard about "Veronica" this spring, when I learned that Gaitskill was coming to the Brookline Booksmith for a signing. At the time, I hadn't read any of her work for quite a while, so I was curious.

While gearing up for the signing, I learned that she had also just published a new collection of stories. As part of this, I came across an excerpt from the collection, and though it's well-written, it was a little too violent for me. One of Gaitskill's strengths is her ability to see and describe cruelty, but this excerpt made me wonder if she's started taking it too far. I suppose that might mean I'm a lightweight (I admit that I'm also afraid to read "Blood Meridian"), but that was my reaction.

So, I went to the signing and bypassed the stories in favor of the novel, which I only just finished reading. While I don't think that the novel is perfect, it's an interesting, powerful read.

The story focuses on Alison, a 40-something former model whose life, by many measures, is something of a wreck.

As the novel opens, Alison is going about a typical day. She lives alone, works as a cleaning lady, and has chronic health problems that cause her worry and pain. She finds herself reflecting on the past, particularly her modeling career and its immediate aftermath, during which she befriended an older woman named Veronica — an unfashionable, slightly ridiculous individual suffering from complications brought on by AIDS. In many ways, Alison saw in Veronica, correctly, her future self.

In some regards, this tale is about coming to terms with the inevitable loss of possibilities that we all experience as time passes. Alison seems to acknowledge the vapidness of her modeling life even as she recalls the happiness it brought: the euphoria of being glamorous, of being admired, and, most important, of knowing the world was open to her.

Though the novel is slow and contemplative — most of the action takes place in the past, and we know in advance how the main plot points will be resolved — it has a payoff in Alison's realizations, what she learns from her reflections. Key among these is her appreciation for the possibilities that do still exist, and her ability to see that her pain is not unique.

The novel mostly works, but I had a few complaints about it.

First, I thought the novel had too many characters, some of whom have only barely suggested personas. For example, in one scene, Alison visits a friend who has several little girls. The girls are completely interchangeable as characters, yet throughout the lengthy scene, Gaitskill keeps mentioning one or the other by name, and it's confusing trying to figure out which girl is being referenced and whether she's supposed to be distinguishable from the others. I'm not sure what prompts this writing habit, but I found it frustrating and distracting.

My other complaint is one that I softened on somewhat by the end of the book. However, around the halfway point, I felt that the tone of the novel was simply too dreary. As the book's narrator, Alison seems to find humor in nothing. Gaitskill's view does tend to be dark, and that's OK — I like it, even — but the monotone telling of the story, for me, detracted from its credibility, at least during that first half.

This point is a bit ironic given some of Gaitskill's own comments at the signing I attended. At the event, someone asked her about Nabokov, and she mentioned that part of Nabokov's greatness is his ability to see both the tragedy and comedy in life, and in some cases even to capture both in a single passage. As I read the first half of "Veronica," I sorely wished that Gaitskill were able to see more comedy.

On this point, though, "Veronica" redeems itself somewhat. In the novel's second half, Alison does begin to see, if not humor, at least peace and beauty, often in the mundane. Consider this passage from a scene where the older Alison is riding a city bus:

"The bus stops at a light. ... We are all quiet in the warmth and the sound of the humming motor. I look outside and see a little budding tree, its slim black body shiny with rain. Joyous and intelligent, like a fresh girl, the earth all new to its slender, seeking roots. ... This moment could come to me on my deathbed. ... If it does, I will love it so much that I will take it into death with me."

Ultimately, it's this tranquil vision that brings Alison a measure of peace and makes the novel work.

At least, that is part of what makes the novel work — the other is Gaitskill's spare, graceful prose. She somehow manages to say so much with so little. A character in a movie is "oblivious as a custard." Of a boyfriend, we know all we need to when Alison says, "His friends were horrible, but I wanted to please them." Likewise when Alison remembers a friend's home: "She lived in a tiny shotgun apartment filled with dirty dishes, cat boxes, and open jars of clawed-at cold cream."

Another passage I particularly liked concerns Alison's reflections on a singer her father favors. Her observations blend the dark with the light — just as the novel, at its best points, does.

"Starvation was in her voice all along. That was the poignancy of it. A sweet voice locked in a dark place, but focused entirely on the tiny strip of light coming in under the door."


  1. Great review -- it made me want to explore both this novel and some of Gaitskill's other works. And your illustration for the review is wonderful. The textures convey a feeling that's quiet but conflicted, much like what you say about the book.

  2. Oh, thank you! If you decide to give her a try, let me know what you think!


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"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.