Even before her death from anorexia in 1983, Karen Carpenter, with her treacly lyrics and Downey beginnings, was a ready-made camp icon. Next to Dylan and the Stones and all the spiteful jaded male anthems and indifferent struts of her era, Carpenter was just “a tiny stick body and a large defer
ential head,” says Alison Owen, the rock-sick narrator of Veronica, Mary Gaitskill’s long- anticipated second novel. She “sang in a delicious lilt of white lace and promises and longing to be close.” But where others have seen irony—in Superstar Todd Haynes went so far as to render Carpenter as an actual Barbie doll—Alison sees no contradiction. “When she shut herself up in her closet and starved herself to death, people were shocked. But 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 under the door.” Leave it to this singular author (who occasionally writes fine essays on pop, including for the Voice) to take Carpenter’s joy seriously. Though blunt as ice on love and sex, Gaitskill has scrupulous compassion for her men and women, who generally depend on their romantic illusions to cope.
Alison’s adolescent illusions included her ambition “to live like music.” She was in thrall to a “tape deck full of surly love.” But by the time the book opens in the present day, she is 46, a washed-up couture model living along an oily canal in San Rafael, California, who recalls how a dying friend years ago had to impatiently remind her, “This isn’t a rock song, hon.”
Not exactly, but a rainy day has got Alison down. Her looks are gone, and because of a car accident and a botched surgery, she has limited use of one arm. She also suffers from hepatitis C, and the codeine and aspirin she guzzles to dull the arm don’t help an already hampered liver. Over the course of this day, in which she visits neighbors, scraps with friends, and cleans the office of a photographer who takes pity on her, Alison recalls her past as if clinging to a ribbon of light. Her thoughts return especially to Veronica, an older proofreader with whom she once worked the night shift at an advertising firm, and who died of AIDS years before.
Perhaps Veronica is a misleading title. Although, like Gaitskill’s wicked first novel, Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991), Veronica hangs on an unlikely friendship between two women, the book is dominated by Alison, whose story spans the late, decadent 1960s to the present. As a teenager Alison runs away from home, as did Gaitskill, “partly because I was unhappy there and partly because running away was what a lot of people did then—it was part of the new style.” She ends up in Paris doing Vogue shoots after a number of false starts and sleazy predators. In a familiar Gaitskill theme, a submissive affair with the head of her modeling agency coaxes Alison’s raw identity from its shell. “He was strong and excessive, like certain sweet tastes—like grocery pie,” she says. “It was so good that when it was over, I felt torn open. Being torn open felt like love to me.”
Alison meets Veronica after her modeling career stalls and she’s working in New York as a temp. Veronica dresses in mannish suits and bow ties and speaks in irritating one-liners (“Excuse me, hon, but I’m very well acquainted with Jimmy Joyce and the use of the semicolon”). Veronica is everything Alison believes she is not: “unbelievably obnoxious,” unfortunately dressed, ugly. Their friendship develops tentatively and only as much as Alison’s stunted humility will allow.
Gaitskill writes measuredly, unprolifically. In addition to Two Girls, she has published just a pair of (ferocious) story collections, Bad Behavior (1988) and Because They Wanted To (1997). Veronica has existed in some form since at least 1994, when Gaitskill told an interviewer, “I did a draft of a novel which is real short.” She added, “I don’t know how long it will take me to finish it.” If Veronica has a weakness, it’s that it sometimes feels more like a document of the last decade than the current one.
This shouldn’t make a difference. Gaitskill can spot ideology in a haystack of assertions faster than any of her more theoretical peers, but she has never been particularly interested in the novel as social or political commentary. The current in her livewire prose runs in the direction of
the psychological and the impressionistic. Those familiar only with the romantically conventional adaptation of her story “Secretary” have no clue to the cunning observational reversals her sentences can take (“He moves like he’s being yelled at by invisible people whom he hates but whom he basically agrees with”).
Yet Veronica cannot help but reflect on an entire generation that wanted to live like the music coming from a murky place. If ’60s cultural fallout isn’t exactly an original subject, Gaitskill has claimed this trampled field. Veronica bleeds from her lacerating intelligence, the rueful wisdom of an author who has aged with her tremendous novel.