Thursday, July 26, 2007

Different reasons to read (Books - Veronica by Mary Gaitskill)

I am just pages from finishing Veronica, which has proved great reading while provoking an interesting discussion here between two prodigious readers: Sheila and Dewey. Gaitskill is a WRITER - my god - what skill at putting together words, and not merely for my admiration also to keep me moving forward in the story. The narrator, Alison, from a suburb near New York, gets drawn for a while into an international life of modeling, drugs, and clubs in the 80s. She is crushed by this life and must pick up the pieces. When we meet her, she lives with the heavy physical and emotional consequences of her former "fast life" as she remembers its events and the friends and enemies she made. The observations are distinctive and the language active, with pickup like a sports car. Some of the descriptions read like short stories - they have a self contained quality about them.

Did I want to come to her apartment and listen to records? Another flare lighted her face; it was need, not hate, but it was as strong as the hate had been. I was very uncomfortable now, and felt that she was too. But her need flared unabated, like a pounding drum that pulls you along to its beat and overrules your own emotions. I said yes, I would drop by her apartment at eight o'clock the next evening.
...But I saw there in the kitchen with my boyfriend, eating cheesecake from a tin and watching his huge black-and-white TV until I sank into a torpor. From there, the German woman's loud drum was hard to hear. I pictured sitting with her on a nice pillow in front of her stereo. Lots of records would be scattered about - she would have a huge selection. She would go through them with her long manicured hands and then put one on and listen to it dully, like she couldn't hear. Just picturing it made me feel heavy and tired. The gray figures running around on the TV screen made me feel heavy and tire too, but in a comforting way. Eight o'clock came and I thought I'd sit in my heavy comfort just ten minutes more and then go. At 8:30 I pictured her sitting alone, going through her records, need and hate surging under her stiff face. She would still be waiting for me to arrive. By nine o'clock, I realized I wouldn't go. I felt bad - I felt like I was deserting a person who was sick or starving. But I still didn't go.

About six months later, I saw her on the street again. I was dressed better then; I'd streaked my blond hair platinum and wore platform shoes Maybe that's why the German woman didn't recognize me, or maybe she pretended not to see me, or maybe she didn't see me. She didn't seem to see anything. She was walking alone, her arms wrapped around her torso. Her clothes were ill-kempt and didn't fit her right because she had lost a lot of weight. Her eyes were hollow and she stared fixedly before her, as if she were walking down an empty corridor. I wanted to stop her, but I didn't know what to say.

I had seen loneliness before that and had felt it, too. But I had never seen or felt it so raw. Thirty years later, I still remember it. Only now I am not bewildered. Now I understand that a person can be wild with loneliness...

Yet even while this is nearly a story, it is well integrated into the narrative drive.

Or this - a passage about she listens to music - but it's also the section where we understand who her father is - which is important for the rest of the story:

My music was more private, and I didn't play it loudly. I crouched down by it, sucking it into my ears...

Great verb choices!

...Downstairs, my father watched TV or lstened to his music while my mother did the housework or drew paper clothes for the cardboard paper dolls she still made for us, even though we no longer played with them. I loved them like you love your hand or your liver, without thinking about it or even being able to see it. But my music made that fleshly love feel dull and dumb, deep, slow, and heavy as stone. Come, said the music, to joy and speed and secret endlessness, where everything tumbles together and attachments are not made of sad flesh.

I didn't know it, but my father was doing the same thing, sitting in his padded rocking chair, listening to opera or to music from World War II. Except he did not want tumbling or endlessness. He wanted more of the attachment I despised - he just didn't want it with us. My father had been too young to enlist when World War II started; his brother joined the army right away. When my dad was finally old enough to enlist in the navy, he sent his brother a picture of himself in his uniform with a Hawaiian girl on his lap; he wrote, "Interrogating the natives!" on the back. A week before the war ended, it was returned to my father with a letter saying his brother was dead. Thirty years later, he was a husband, father, and administrator in a national tax-office chain. But sometimes when I walked past him sitting in his chair, he would look at me as if I were the cat or a piece of furniture, while inside he searched for his brother...

She's a champ for creating bold ugly images that get right to the point:

He bounced a rubber ball on the pavement, caught it, and bounced it again. "I'm a pimp." His face was like lava turned into cold rock. But inside him, it was still running hot; you coudl smell it: pride, rage, and shame boiling and ready to spill out his cock and scald you.

or this:

...Hapiness shines on his dullard sadness and makes it scratch its head and blink with wonder.

or this:

...My mother came in wearing a pantsuit that was too short for her high heels. Her eyes looked like her leaping voice, and she walked like she was trying to go three ways at once.

I could go on and on, quoting these bright gems - there are so many of them, but the reason I think they're great is not because you get off the story and stop to admire them, but because they are the story.

There are two remarkable things about Veronica. I found the characters a pretty unattractive lot - I don't like them and I certainly don't want to be them, but strangely, when I would put the book down, I found myself thinking about them and wondering what are they doing now? I was interested despite the fact that I would probably avoid interacting with these people in my life.

The other thing remarkable in this book were the time shifts. Gaitskill (and her narrator, it wasn't just a writer thing) move back and forth in about three time periods over thirty years - or I should say they flow back and forth in time, the effect is so fluid and so right for the story that I never questioned it once. What has happened to the central character has put her in a place where time is very liquid for her. As a result, the reader often finds out about about how things turn out before the details are related to us. The effect this had on me was to put me very much in the mindset of the narrator - I didn't care about the story to find out what happened, I often already knew that. I was interested in finding out how it happened - I observed it rather than being drawn through by suspense. I felt listless in relation to it. I felt like an observer on the fringes. This listlessness pervaded me as I was reading this book. I almost felt polluted by it. And yet I kept reading. I did care about the characters but I felt like I didn't care about life - but I can't help recommending the book. Not every story or character is beautiful, admirable, or even pleasant -yet it still possesses its pleasures, and the pleasure of this book was in how we learned about what happened as well as in the distinctiveness of its observations. I'm really interested to read Gaitskill's short stories Bad Behavior next.

...and now for something completely different, it's back to Muggles and wizards, a book built on sheer momentum of plot, delightful fantasy, sweet heroes, and dastardly villains. I should call this post When Harry met Veronica.


Anonymous said...

Wait until you read Bad Behavior. There is definitely a sense of pollution with Gaitskill - and for me, the small doses of her work better. Bad Behavior remains one of the most breathtaking short story collections I have ever read - and it's hard to believe how young she was when it was published. Her voice is so sure.

Gaitskill was a runaway, worked as a callgirl, a stripper, lived that fringe-life for quite some time - and her stories just have the stamp of reality.

But more than anything - it's just her turn of phrase.

Her most recent short story collection Because They Wanted To is also spectacular.

Now go forth and meet Harry!

Eva said...

sounds interesting-I enjoyed all of the passages you shared!

I've tagged you for the blogging tips meme-feel free to play or not play. If you want to play, here's the post:

Ted said...

Sheila - yes, I can't wait to read her short stories, I'm so glad you recommended her to me.
Eva - Glad you liked itThanks for the tag

Dewey said...

Sheila, I really want to try her short stories, now, thanks! I'll go put Bad Behavior on my bookmooch wishlist.