By Kristen Koczarski
Mary Gaitskill’s first three works, two collections of short stories and one novel, are full of dark underbellies and poignant themes and Veronica is no exception. This most recent novel, published in 2005 and nominated for the National Book Award, explores sickness, death, beauty, sex, and family to name only a few.
Veronica is the story of Alison Owen, a middle-aged woman with Hepatitis C and living off disability. As the reader follows her through the course of one day, Alison reflects on the events past and everything that led up to this point. The bulk of the novel is comprised of flashbacks and memories of events as told through a now grown Alison. These jumps in time are denoted by page breaks, and you would expect these to be jarring or disjointed, but they are not. Gaitskill’s transitions are as fluid and seamless as a fever dream—where everything intermingles in a confusing and enlightening way. As the novel progresses, we learn of Alison’s all but broken family, her teenage rebellions, and her venture into the European modeling world.
After being chewed up and spit out by her modeling agency, Alison gets a temp job working along side Veronica, a dignified but quirky woman over a decade her senior. The two strike up an unlikely friendship. When Veronica is infected with AIDS by her bisexual boyfriend Duncan, most of Veronica’s friends abandon her and Alison resolves to be the “brave” friend to the sick and dying woman. Many years later after Veronica’s death, Alison now has to live as the sick woman instead.
Gaitskill’s writing is breathtaking. Veronica is lyrical and sharp enough to cut the whole way through. Her blunt and casual treatment of societally deviant, usually sexual, behaviors like hard drug use and BDSM is refreshing in its clarity and candidness. The two running motifs in the novel, communicating through popular music and a mythic tale of a beautiful spoiled girl given to us on the first page, weave in and out throughout the entire work, tying each strand to the next in such a way as to leave the reader reeling. Veronica is a gripping read that haunts long after the last page has been turned.
Veronica and Gaitskill’s other books are available in the Wadleigh Library.