I read Mary Gaitskill's Veronica hoping to have confirmed the judgment that she is "one of the most transgressive American writers working today," as one review put it. I should have known better. Words like "transgressive" and "subversive" are used so promiscuously to describe any fiction that threatens to "critique" reigning norms, just as "innovative" is used reflexively to describe any work that doesn't obediently proceed in the narrative direction prescribed by Freytag's Triangle, that normally I just disregard their invocation as so much boilerplate. Having read in a number of places, however, that Gaitskill was a truly transgressive and unconventional writer, I decided to see what Veronica had to offer.
No doubt I should not take out on Gaitskill my impatience with such critical inflation, but I don't think she's done much to discourage the idea she's a "daring" writer. As it turns out, the attempted transgressions in this novel are entirely transgressions of sexual morality or propriety. In the milieu in which its characters move--the fashion industry, AIDS-frightened New York City in the 1980s--there's lots of sex, much of it exploitative and unhealthy. Apparently we're to be taken aback by passages such as this one:
. . . Alain looked up and smiled. "Do you like [the haircut]?" I asked. He stood and said of course he liked it, it had been his idea. Then he jumped on me.
I say "jumped" because he was quick, but he wasn't rough. He was strong and excessive, like certain sweet tastes--like grocery pie. But he was also precise. It was so good that when it was over, I felt torn open. Being torn open felt like love to me; I thought it must have felt the same to him. I knew he had a girlfriend and that he lived with her. But I was still shocked when he kissed me and sent me home. . . .
Frankly, the idea that the fashion world is full of sexual predators and encourages a sadomasochistic attitude toward sex doesn't come as much of a shock to me. If you really want a disturbing portrayal of the way in which women are inculcated into a kind of reflexive sadomasochism, read Elfriede Jelinek, whose fiction truly transgresses modern myths about sex and romantic love without relying on the superficial adornments of the sociological "expose." Ultimately, all of the characters in Veronica (maybe especially the title character, who is not the novel's protagonist but whose fate is a sort of cautionary supplement to the protagonist's story) seem to have been assigned their roles in a kind of retrospective account of the hedonistic 1980s, but none of them rise above the highly schematic requirements of these roles. They're types, duly chosen to represent various attitudes and excesses of the era:
I wanted something to happen, but I didn't know what. I didn't have the ambition to be an important person or a star. My ambition was to live like music. I didn't think of it that way, but that's what I wanted; it seemed like that's what everybody wanted. I remember people walking around like they were wrapped in an invisible gauze of songs, one running into the next--songs about sex, pain, injustice, love, triumph, each song bursting with ideal characters that popped out and fell back as the person walked down the street or rode the bus.
In his Village Voice review of the novel, Benjamin Strong writes that "If Veronica has a weakness, it's that it sometimes feels more like a document of the last decade than the current one." Frankly, I'd have just as much trouble with a novel that seems to be a "document" of the current moment as with one that "documents" a previous epoch, but Strong does make a relevant point: Veronica, published in 2005, already seems dated, an evocation of a period and of characters that come off as mere historical curiosities. Francine Prose also describes Veronica as essentially a period piece--"Gaitskill may be, among contemporary authors, the one best-suited to capture, on the page, a period when the marriage of sex and death was such an extraordinarily close one"--but claims to have found reading the book unsettling, "like biting into a nightmare-inducing, virally loaded madeleine. Halfway through, you may find yourself remembering things you'd forgotten about a moment in time when half your friends were dying young, and when you feared that anyone who had ever had sex (including, of course, yourself) was doomed to a premature and hideous demise" (Slate).
It's telling that for Prose what is "nightmarish" about reading Veronica involves "remembering things you'd forgotten about a moment in time. . . ." What the novel offers is an opportunity to "remember," to recollect from a perspective of relative safety a "moment in time," even if the memories are full of doom and foreboding. But the memories themselves, the effect of being transported back to this time when one realized sex and death could be so nearly aligned, are what is "nightmare-inducing" about the book. Neither its prose, its formal ingenuity, nor even its specific imagery is responsible for its allegedly profound impact. Its status as "document," as a reminder of how traumatic the "AIDS era" was for those who lived through it, remains its primary virtue.
Gaitskill is certainly not a bad writer, but her occasional stylistic flourishes ("her eyes gave off the cold glow of an eel whipping through water") cannot bring its first-person narrator Alison to life as anything other than a stock figure (the unlucky victim of her times) or compensate for the ultimately bland and unengaging memoir-like structure Gaitskill employs as a way of narrating Alison's life and times. Prose claims that Veronica "places no. . .strain on our memory. It creates an atmosphere, provokes a response, and suffuses us with an emotion that we can easily, all too easily, summon up." She means this as a compliment and apparently believes this makes the novel "unconventional," since we are not required to revisit the narrative, "searching for some forgotten plot turn, some event or aspect of character." I don't myself find this strategy very unconventional; if anything, it's just a way of reinforcing the cheap appeal to established iconographic images, our cultural memory of the 80s. At best, it's the kind of "newness" that is more interested in the sociopolitical than the literary.
The second half of the novel seems especially rote and uninspired, but once you understand that Veronica is mostly an excuse for summoning up its chosen "period," that the reader's interest would finally falter is not really surprising.