Notorious for Dirty Sex, Gaitskill Is Radically Honest

Reading Mary Gaitskill is like having a flock of birds fly straight at your face: You register the beauty, but you still want to cover your eyes.

Alison Owen, the heroine of Ms. Gaitskill’s second novel, Veronica, is a 46-year-old former fashion model reduced to a modest early retirement in San Rafael, Calif., through the unfashionable agencies of illness, aging and botched orthopedic surgery. In her 20’s, she had modeled in Paris and New York. Now, her old friend John hires her to clean his office weekly.

Alison’s relationship with John has a subtle S&M dynamic that recalls Ms. Gaitskill’s story “Secretary,” the basis for the 2002 film. When John discovers that she’s been smoking in his office, they run through a well-worn scene—he, angry and abusive, she, fawning and apologetic (“a whine comes into my voice, like an animal showing its ass”)—obliquely re-enacting his failed attempt, 20 years earlier, to make her love him.

Alison’s cleaning job may signal how far she’s fallen, but she’s long past the point of crying for her “broken life.” She has hepatitis C. Her best friends, Joanne and Drew, whom she met at a support group, have both hepatitis C and AIDS. They’re saintly figures in Alison’s eyes: hiring homeless men, raising the neighborhood children. “In these rooms,” Alison muses, “each thing that looks crazy or stupid will be like a drawing you give your mother, regarded with complete acceptance and put on the wall.” When she looks at Joanne’s tired, ordinary face and sees beauty there, Alison feels a rush of gratitude. She had almost become the sort of person who couldn’t recognize that Joanne was beautiful.

What saved Alison—what made her capable of love—was her friendship in the early 80’s with a woman named Veronica Ross. They met on the graveyard shift at a temp word-processing job in Manhattan, between phases of Alison’s modeling career. Veronica dressed primly and carried a personal “office kit” but had a strident speaking voice—a voice meant to be overheard—and a ravenously bisexual boyfriend named Duncan. Despite her puckered, ironic smile, “she was monstrously ordered. In her plaid suit, ruffled blouse, and bow tie, she was like a human cuckoo clock.”

Veronica alternately embarrassed and fascinated Alison, who had few other friends. Some obscure early hurt gave Alison a “habit of distance,” a kind of adolescent disdain softened by longing. She watched people interacting at parties and felt drawn to “the goodwill and the deep things,” but was disgusted by their physical imperfections—bony calves, a thrusting jaw. She kept only a tenuous connection with Veronica until her unglamorous older friend—who had breezily argued that it “wasn’t a woman’s disease”—tested positive for H.I.V.

Laid out like this, the novel presents an archetypal theme: A beautiful but wounded heroine finds redemption through compassion for another. But until the final pages, that’s not the reader’s experience of Veronica. Ms. Gaitskill alternates the past with the present story line, so that we shift back and forth in sensibility between the temperate, middle-aged Alison and the tortured girl she was. This jagged progression sometimes works like memory—our subtle urge to undercut happiness by remembering our failings—but at other times it feels arbitrary, a way for the author to cut off action or conversation before it loses intensity and plunge us into another harrowing experience.

Ms. Gaitskill is notorious for offering up an uncomfortable combination of extravagant metaphor, dirty sex and complicated relationships, but that’s not actually her most distinctive quality. More striking is her radical honesty, an insistence on shading that makes it difficult to like any of her characters. Alison tells Veronica a story about her rich and contemptuous Paris lover, Alain, making a jam omelet in their apartment for a filthy, naked man she’d earlier seen licking the floor at a sadomasochistic club. “Yes,” Veronica says, “[Alain] was willing to go places most people won’t go. He was looking at himself, you know.” Alison recoils.

“She was a fool to talk that way—‘you know.’ Like she could know anything about Alain or where most people would go. One side of her lips curved up in a repulsive know-it-all style, sensual and tight. But her eyes were gentle and calm. I knew how trite and smug she was being, and I felt superior to it. But I didn’t know the gentleness of her eyes …. Unknowing, I took comfort and went back to feeling superior. Maybe I was able to feel the comfort because I half-despised it.”

Each moment in the novel is plumbed for its contradictory emotional currents. There’s no rest for the reader. Every chair you sit on has a tack.

This taste for extremes is one reason Veronica is structured in short, shifting bursts rather than as a sustained narrative. There’s a stylistic or emotional shock on almost every page—and, often, sentence after sentence of stabbing beauty.

Ms. Gaitskill has incredible facility with language, turning out shiny coins when they’re least expected: “I walked blocks of asphalt glossy with yellow lamplight and streaming with yellow cabs, each with a hard nugget of human head inside.” Because she demands so much of each sentence, minor passages in the novel are often overwritten; you can sense the author probing the scene, tugging at each strand of meaning, searching for the one that will make flames shoot off the page.

Although an exhausting read, Veronica is true in ways that few American novels are willing to be true. Alison doesn’t pay Veronica’s medical bills or wipe up her bodily fluids; she simply becomes a decent person, someone who can see beyond bad hair. Her small heroism is not in loving her friend, but in realizing, over the years that follow, that loving her friend wasn’t such a rare or noble thing to do.

Regina Marler is the author of Bloomsbury Pie: The Making of the Bloomsbury Boom (Holt).

Notorious for Dirty Sex, Gaitskill Is Radically Honest