We all want to believe we are good. That at the core behind our bad behavior is inherent benevolence. Often, this is why we try so hard being good, as opposed to simply being. Mary Gaitskill’s second novel (we’re not including the short story collections), Veronica, highlights this concept with ease and discomfiture through the medium of her demi-protagonist, Alison. As an attractive girl who has coasted on the laurels of said beauty since her childhood, Alison is perpetually tormented by the unshakeable feeling that she’s awful, and that she’s driven by impure motives to befriend an aging fellow co-worker with AIDS–the eponymous Veronica–when she’s forced to work in an office during the brief period her modeling career falls apart.
This fear of hers–the unquellable anxiety that she is as hollow and devoid of emotion as any reprobate person–first began in her childhood, with her mother (jealous of Alison’s natural beauty, of course) telling her stories of a wicked girl, one who, rather than bringing her mother a loaf of bread as she’s told to, chooses to toss it down on the bog to protect her shoes from getting damaged. It is a tale that continues to haunt Alison throughout her life, expressly because she’s chosen to become a model–to admit to her love of her aesthetic self (all the while mostly hating her true self). Constantly tormented by dreams inspired by the story her mother told her, Alison rehashes one in particular, in which, “Dark balances and weights the light. On the dark bottom of the ocean, a wicked girl is covered with black slime and snakes and surrounded by ugly creatures staring at her with hate in their eyes. She thinks they are staring at her because she is so beautiful. She doesn’t know she is as ugly as they are.”
But Alison does not immediately acknowledge the darkness–the hideousness–within herself at the outset of her modeling career, so enamored is she of being in Paris for the first time and of being the most treasured girlfriend of Alain, the head of the modeling agency she works for. His adulation of her (or at least her appearance) when she arrives to him still in her late teens is almost enough to offset Alison’s memories of prostitution after running away to San Francisco simply to feel free from the oppression of her quintessentially suburban parents.
Told from her current station in life–a cleaning lady with hepatitis who only gets said job because it’s her friend whose toilets she cleans–Alison’s flashbacks to the late 70s and 80s play out like a slowly deteriorating fake jewel–a diamond one eventually comes to find is a cubic zirconia. It all feels so important, being a part of this scene, these parties. Which is why it’s almost unheard of that Alison would deign to befriend Veronica while making her climb back into the world of superficiality. While temping in an office to pick herself back up after Alain fucked her over in every way, mainly financially, she comes to allow Veronica into her headspace in a manner she never has with anyone. Veronica immediately detects her lust for returning to the profession that ejected her, encouraging her to try again.
And, oh, how Alison does re-ingratiate herself. Often channeling Bret Easton Ellis even better than he himself can, Gaitskill is adept at capturing the intrinsic vacuousness of New York parties, especially in the 80s. As Alison grows increasingly world-weary, her internal perspective about the people around her becomes even more biting, noting such things as, “A woman writing a book on the history of troll dolls would look at me and talk loudly about the trivial nature of beauty and fashion” or “The founder of a tiny magazine talked about writers who were supposed to be good and were terrible. ” This being, ultimately, the crux of success in New York–not talent, but a strong predilection toward “networking” (or, ass-kissing).
Thus, Veronica, in her visible physical ugliness serves as the only touchstone Alison has into that which is “real” and “pure” in her life–hence, her desire to remain in contact with her even after she escapes her brief stint as a nebulously titled office worker. That Veronica’s own goodness–in Alison’s mind–far outshines her own is enhanced by the fact that she has contracted AIDS from a bisexual man named Duncan, one who treats her with the same carelessness as a ragdoll. Rather than being abhorrent to Alison, as it is to the rest of most of Veronica’s friends (who eventually abandon her in her time of need), it is noble, the thing that makes her such a beacon of light to Alison. As she puts it, “I imagine feeling the beat of [Duncan’s] heart, thumping with dumb animal purity. Once, when I was working in Spain, I went to a bullfight where I saw a gored horse run with its intestines spilling out behind it. It was trying to outrun death by doing what it always did, what always gave it joy, safety and pride. Not understanding that what had always been good was now futile and worthless, and humiliated by its inability to understand. That’s how I imagine Duncan’s heart. Beating like it always had, working as hard as it could. Not understanding why it was no good. This was why Veronica got into the bed–to comfort this debased heart. To say to it, But you are good. I see. I know. You are good. Even if it doesn’t work.” But he is not good, nor is Alison, as she keeps finding the truth about her nature welling up to the surface at every turn. Her boyfriend after Alain, Patrick, asks her why she would choose to become friends with Veronica right at the very time she contracted AIDS. What Alison can’t say is that it’s the only thing that makes her good in any way–this ability she has to “tolerate” Veronica’s sickness in a decade when it’s considered little different than leprosy. Without Veronica, pitiful, grotesque Veronica, in her orbit, she truly would feel despicable beyond repair.
And yet, she can’t help but admit, “Sometimes I had contempt and disgust for Veronica. It would come on me as I lay alone in bed, drowsy but unable to sleep. I would picture her with one of her false smiles or arranging her cat coasters or adjusting her jaunty bow tie, and I would fill with scorn.” This latent antipathy that Alison has becomes not so latent at a New Year’s Eve party she brings Veronica to, repulsed by Veronica’s lack of veneer, the way she is able to make everyone around her cringe–so much so that it makes Alison want to dip out to the next party solo out of sheer embarrassment.
She also grapples with whether or not Veronica even truly loved–loves–Duncan. If her contracting this disease was all worth it. But as she examines Duncan’s treatment of Veronica, she can see that Veronica, too, was only pursuing Duncan for her own selfish reasons, wanting to make herself good in embracing Duncan’s foulness. Alison vacillates, “How could I believe she even knew what love was? My thoughts faltered and will-lessly followed the music. No. People who loved each other would never treat each other, or allow themselves to be treated, with such indifference and cruelty. But even as I thought this, I felt, rising from under thought, the stubborn assertion of love living inside their disregard like a ghost, unable to make itself manifest, yet still felt, like emotion from a dream.”
Regardless of whether there is genuine love between Duncan and Veronica or not, Alison justifies Veronica’s disease, telling family, “‘She acts like a demented bitch,’ I said, ‘and I want to tell her that, but I can’t. I don’t know how I’d be if I were her. People say you have a choice about how you act. But it seems like she really doesn’t… sometimes I get this picture of what it’s like inside her. I picture inside her being like a maze that’s really small and dark, full of roadblocks and trick doors. I picture her twisting around and around, wanting to go forward and not being able to find the way.” Alison, in this moment, once again unmasks her egocentricity, consistently describing her own trapped sentiments under the guise of describing Veronica’s, and with these expressed concerns unveiling the misgivings she has about her character, or lack thereof.
Persisting in attempting authentic altruism, Alison does her best to give Veronica pep talks intended to galvanize her, suggesting this or that sort of medicine. But Veronica has an excuse for everything, such as, “I tried an acupuncturist a year ago. I can’t say it did much for me, though he was awfully nice. He talked about the organs and how they relate to different emotions. Lungs are sadness; liver is anger. He said my main weakness was my small intestine. Would you like to guess which emotion that’s related to? Deep unrequited love. The small intestine! Who knew?” Undeniably, it’s practically impossible to find requited love of any kind in the realm of 80s New York, when everyone is more concerned with getting their last bout of pleasure in before the proverbial last days of disco–whether this meant impending death or an impending financial crisis (#1987).
Alison, too, knows the feeling of unrequited love, the sting of being thrown over by Alain haunting her even after finding brief romance with another serious boyfriend, Patrick. But even Patrick isn’t riveted enough by her beauty to remain with her. Alison, so immune to emotions by now, illuminating her “moving on” process with, “I saw other men after Patrick. They were important to me at the time, but now I can’t remember why. Maybe there was a demon in my pants saying Do it with this one! No, don’t do it with that one!” Chris, a 35-year-old former model, staves off the loneliness for a bit and then, after him, “There were several others. I lay awake thinking of them, too. I leapt into their arms, laughing, and covered their necks with kisses. I told them secrets and stories from my childhood. I told them I loved them. Now I can’t think why. Perhaps it was simply that, in each case, I was the woman and he was the man. And that was enough.”
Going through the motions is a common theme in Alison’s life. Constantly projecting her own inadequacies onto others, Veronica included. When postulating how Veronica came to get AIDS in the first place–by engaging in sex with a man who little cared for her–Alison suggests, “‘I don’t think you love yourself. You need to learn to love yourself.’ Veronica was silent for a long moment. Then she said, ‘I think love is overrated. My parents loved me. And it didn’t do any good.'” So it went for Alison, never quite enough in her parents’ eyes, the place from which the first source of love and acceptance is supposed to come.
This is most likely another primary reason for Alison to gravitate toward Veronica, who embraces her for all that she is, never trying to change her or pick at her the way her mother or her photographers do. As Veronica remarks at one point, “How do you think Stalin and Hitler wound up killing so many people? They were trying to fix them. To make them ideal.” And this is the cycle that Alison perpetuates from her own mother in trying to “fix” Veronica with her methods of striving toward a level of perfection that can’t be achieved, least of all by her ailing middle-aged friend.
But “That’s poetry… Life and sex and cruelty. Not something you learn in community college. Not something you write in a notebook.’ Or so Alison proclaims at a party during her first taste of success in Paris to another model named Daphne, who, upon hearing this shallowly profound declaration, “slam[s] the glass back on the table so hard, I thought she’d break it. She went out of the room and down the stairs. She knew what I’d said was stupid, but she half-believed it, too.” And yes, so much of the 80s were filled with half-stupid, yet half-brilliantly philosophical isms (e.g. “Where’s the beef?”).
Alison plays into it, this need to come across as caring through “meaningful” nihilism, just as when she watches a rich woman driving from the perch of her own apartment. She laments in the same way she does for Veronica, which is to say, largely from a striated place inside of herself, noting, “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.” It is a cage Alison is all too familiar with, and one she doesn’t know how to leave as she functions so well in it, there in her trough of baseness and self-loathing.
In part, this attitude of emotional immunity comes from a source of self-protection. Once again, at another party, this is manifest in yet another exchange Alison has with a different model: “‘That is so rude,’ said Candy. But to me it wasn’t. I understood that Cecilia looked at me as an object with specific functions, because that’s how I looked at her. Without knowing it, that is how I looked at everyone coming into my life then. I wanted to love. But I didn’t realize how badly I had been hurt. I didn’t realize that my habit of distance had become so unconscious and deep that I didn’t know how to be with another person.”
Veronica, in contrast, allows herself empathy for even the most wretched of people, even a man who raped her, of whom she states, “‘He was very tender.’ Her voice deepened; it became fulsome, indulgent, almost smug. My rapist was very tender.’ Smart people would say she spoke that way about that story because she wanted to deny the pain of it, even make herself superior to it. This is probably true. Smart people would also say that sentimentality always indicates a lack of feeling.”
Alison, accordingly, gets sentimental about Veronica in thinking back on her over the span of her day of cleaning, of reminiscing about how she fell so far from her peak days as an “it girl” of the 80s.
As the narrative grows grimmer, an almost waking nightmare for the very fact that Alison is still left standing, she admits to us that she best not continue in rehashing what happened to all the bit players she once knew, acknowledging, “There are other stories. But they are sad. Mostly, they are on the periphery. If we were a story, Veronica and I would be about a bedraggled prostitute taking refuge in the kitchen with the kindly old cook. If the cook dies, you don’t know why. There isn’t that much detail. You just know the prostitute (or servant or street girl) goes on her way. She and the cook are small, dim figures. They are part of the scene and they add to it. But they are not the story.”
At the very least, while “…no one remembers a piece of grass” amid a huge patch of lawn, “it does its part. [Alison] had done [her] part” to try to be good.