After the end
by Keith Taylor
In the 1980s Mary Gaitskill exploded into the reading world with Bad Behavior, a collection of short stories that shocked and challenged what was left of complacent baby-boomer assumptions about our generation's social experiments. The parties had become desperate and alcoholic, the playful drug use had turned into addiction, and free love had become sadomasochism or the pathway to a deadly disease. Yet what was most troubling about these stories was the dark allure of their world.
In Gaitskill's recent novel Veronica, the title character laments to the narrator, after overhearing a casual comment at a showing of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, "Everything we did is being erased. . . . They're denying it all. They're taking it all away." It is one of many moments in the book where cultural loss seems personally overwhelming. The novel is about the sad end of something, but it's also about what comes after the end, and that is a new thing in Gaitskill's fiction.
To tell this story, Gaitskill has found a way to jump back and forth in time, as easily as if sifting through a photo album. There is no jarring when Gaitskill summarizes four decades of attitude "For a while, 'we' were loving; then we were alienated and angry, then ironic, then depressed. Although we are at war with terror, fashion magazines say we are sunny now. We wear bright colors and choose moral clarity" because her characters have embodied all those changes.
Alison Owen, the narrator of Veronica, is a troubled runaway, who left home both because she hated it and because it was the thing to do. She stumbles through the fashionable cities of her era, starting with selling flowers in front of strip joints in San Francisco. She becomes a temp worker in New York, an exploited fashion model in Paris, and a nameless actress in music videos in L.A. She revels in the flashy beauty of the moment, defining herself
and everyone she meets by its lavishly ephemeral standards. She has a string of lovers who treat her with various degrees of kindness or disdain, but she also eventually befriends Veronica, an older woman, dying of AIDS, who is abrasive, worn, and belligerently unfashionable. That improbable friendship becomes redemptive:
I sank down into darkness and lived among demons for a long, long time. I became one of them. . . . I was saved by another demon, who looked on me with pity and so became human again. And because I pitied her in turn, I was allowed to become human, too.
Coming after a clear-eyed tour of the alluring decadence that captivated so many of us, this movement toward a new understanding of what we will have to call "love" has made Mary Gaitskill one of the more interesting writers of our time. She returns to Ann Arbor to read from Veronica and other work in the U-M Visiting Writers Series at Residential College Auditorium on Thursday, December 7.
[Review published December 2006]