The brutal truth is that beauty can be a curse for a woman in a way that it rarely or never is for a man. Alison is only seventeen when she is discovered by a guy who runs a sleazy modeling agency in San Francisco. A runaway at fifteen who returns to her family only long enough to run away again at sixteen, Alison is as street smart and wild as any of the young girls depicted in Gaitskill’s earlier short stories, so although Gregory Carlson does lure her to his studio to take pictures and then to sample the flesh of this young beauty he spied selling flowers on the street, she at least half knows that will be the outcome before she accepts his invitation. She watches what happens to her with the eye of a painter or researcher. Perhaps had he been only a trickster or Allison less beautiful, that would have been the whole of the story, but he does send off the pictures he takes, and Allison is contacted by a modeling agency in New York. Returning home again only long enough to get the reluctant blessing of her parents, Allison soon finds herself in Paris living around a group of young, beautiful girls who are alternately coddled and abused, kept in fancy apartments where there are literally bowls of cocaine and pantries full of fancy party foods.
It is this period of a few months that provides the backdrop for the rest of the story. Alison becomes famous in a minor way quite quickly, but when she publicly shames the head of the modeling agency who owns the apartment she lives in and whose mistress she has become, she is quite literally dumped on the streets of Paris, blacklisted and more-or-less broke.
I have been talking as if Gaitskill tells her story in a chronological fashion, but in fact, she is a master of time-change, of moving from present to past not simply chapter by chapter, but often from one sentence to the next. Indeed, the bulk of the story centers around a period of time when Alison is a proofreader in New York, and even that story is told from a present that occurs many years later in which Allison, now living again in San Francisco and a lifetime removed from the nubile youth required for her earlier years of modeling, is very ill with hepatitis, her past swimming before her in a fevered haze of memory.
Having filled you in on this much of the story, I still have not even mentioned the title character, Veronica. Unlike the often pathetically thin, underfed girls Alison has known in the world of models, Veronica is an overweight, middle-aged woman whose sense of style is outlandish and whose cynicism is finally polished and directed shotgun style at almost all who fall under her gaze. I have no idea how Gaitskill landed on this unlikely duo as the lynchpins for her story, and yet the attachment, even love, that develops over time between these two is quite extraordinary, and for a novel as tough and unsentimental as this one, almost tender. Their relationship blossoms in the troubled New York of the 80s when AIDS is new and when New York comes to be known as the city of death. The chain-smoking, tough-talking Veronica is a loner and fellow worker who proofreads “like a cop with a nightstick; ” she dates a bisexual man who is away with his young boys much more often than he is with Veronica, and the stories she tells of their strange dates in Central Park are bleak and alarming.
Although the reader is introduced to Veronica early in the novel, it is only in the helter-skelter jumping from past to present, Paris to New York to San Francisco that the story of their relationship slowly unfolds. Indeed, Veronica is already long dead from AIDS and Alison super sick with hepatitis C when Gaitskill now and then returns the reader to the present.
I have perhaps told you more of the story already than I need to, and you may well be wondering why, given the gloomy list of events, one would want to read such a novel. The answer is in the beauty of the writing and the emotional depth achieved by the author. Gaitskill knows these characters, and she knows them with the certainty of having lived these lives rather than merely viewing them. Her metaphors are wild, sometimes even twisted and alarming, and yet seem utterly appropriate the moment one reads them. At least this reader wonders why he has not seen the world in just such metaphors as soon as they leap off the page. Gaitskill says of one of her characters that “His opinions were frivolous, fierce, and exact,” and I am tempted to use just that language to describe her writing. There is such a fierce beauty in the ugly scenes she depicts, in the deep, inner agony she describes.
I know that I cannot do justice to the writing by quoting a line or two, and there is certainly no way I can capture Gaitskill’s incredible ease in moving from time to time, place to place, in slowly allowing this story to take form by weaving present to past, naïve childhood to stormy young adulthood to fevered present. But let me leave you with a longish passage describing a bus-ride Alison is taking in San Francisco, nearly delirious from the fever engendered by hepatitis C, and yet still observing the details of events around her.
If you read this book, I promise you will see and hear and smell the world Gaitskill is describing for you, and you will come away somehow with a deeper and more sympathetic understanding of these strange beings that we are.
The bus humps and huffs as it makes a labored circle around a block of discount stores and a deserted grocery. As the bus leans hard to one side, its gears make a high whining sound, like we’re streaking through space. Looking beyond the stores, I glimpse green hills and a cross section of sidewalks with little figures toiling on them. Pieces of life packed in hard skulls with soft eyes looking out, toiling up and down, around and around. More distant green, the side of a building. The bus comes out of the turn and stops at the transfer point. It sags down with a gassy sigh. Every passenger’s ass feels its churning, bumping motor. Every ass thus connected, and moving forward with the bus. The old white lady across the aisle from me sits on her stiff haunches, eating wet green grapes from a plastic bag and peering out to see who’s getting on. The crabbed door suctions open. Teenagers stomp up through it, big kids in flapping clothes with big voices in flapping words. ‘Cuz like—whatcho look—you was just a—ain’t lookin’ at you!’ The old lady does not look. But I can feel her taking them in. Their energy pours over her skin, into her blood, heart, spine, and brain. Watering the flowers of her brain. The bag of green grapes sits ignored on her lap. Private snack suspended for public feast of youth. She would never be so close to them except on the bus. Neither would I. For a minute, I feel sorry for rich people alone in their cars. I look down on one now, just visible through her windshield, sparkling bracelets on hard forearm, clutching the wheel, a fancy-pant thigh, a pulled-down mouth, a hairdo. Bits of light fly across her windshield. I can see her mind beating around the closed car like a bird. Locked in with privileges and pleasures, but also with pain.