The Marriage of Sex and Death

The nightmarish vision of Mary Gaitskill.

There’s a way in which each novel we read enters into a conversation with every other novel we’ve read. Even though they may have been written in different eras and places, they can talk to one another because they speak essentially the same language: They follow a narrative arc, they include a cast of characters who may or may not remind us of people we know, and they create a world that in some sense mirrors the world outside the novel.

And then there are novels that speak a language entirely their own. We recognize them as novels, though we would have a hard time saying why that should be so. They may have some, or none, of the elements I’ve listed above, but these features seem almost extraneous or inessential. Beckett’s Molloy transferring his sucking stones from pocket to pocket is hardly what one would call a plot. The odd women in Two Serious Ladies all blither on in pretty much the same voice and seem to meld into one another, which is part of Jane Bowles’ intention. And the universe of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, one in which past and present blur and in which it hardly matters whether someone is alive or dead, makes Ulysses seem, by contrast, like Middlemarch. When we remember these untraditional novels, we tend to forget trivial and even relatively important details of story and character. What stays with us is an atmosphere, an emotion, the memory of how it felt to read the book and of what it was like to inhabit a particular sensibility—the mind of a character or of an author—for a certain period of time. Perhaps what we recall most vividly is how a writer’s language rose to meet the challenge of maintaining our interest without the conventions (suspense, and so forth) that more commonly sustain it.

Mary Gaitskill’s new book, Veronica, is one of these unconventional fictions, though among its peculiar charms is the fact that it seems to think of itself as a much more ordinary sort of novel than it is. There is, I suppose, a plot: An ailing former model named Alison looks back on the decade before the ravages of AIDS were at least partly tamed by today’s pharmacopeia of antiviral drugs. There are subsidiary characters: Alison’s family, her lovers, and especially the eponymous co-worker and friend whose extreme eccentricity and personal style provide a simultaneously inspiring and cautionary example for our heroine. And there is a milieu, or a series of milieus: the high life in New York and Paris in the 1980s, and the low life, cleaning offices in California after Alison’s advancing age and declining beauty result in a severe status demotion. But unlike Jennifer Egan’s astonishing Look at Me, which really is about (among other things) modeling, Veronica offers just enough details about the photo studio, the modeling agency, and the office as are required for a spare version of verisimilitude; precisely as much, and no more, reality as seems necessary before the book can dispense with the formalities and get on with its concerns.

Some of these concerns—sex, solitude, power relations, the way that friendship (particularly female friendship based on inequalities of one sort or another) can form and scar us more deeply than a love affair—will be familiar to fans of Gaitskill’s work. But what’s most unusual about Veronica is how much: The experience of reading it seems rather like biting into a nightmare-inducing, virally loaded madeleine. Halfway through, you may find yourself remembering things you’d forgotten about a moment in time when half your friends were dying young, and when you feared that anyone who had ever had sex (including, of course, yourself) was doomed to a premature and hideous demise.

Meanwhile, it may occur to you that Gaitskill may be, among contemporary authors, the one best-suited to capture, on the page, a period when the marriage of sex and death was such an extraordinarily close one.

Gaitskill has always written incisively about the paradox of sexual intimacy and individual isolation, a contradiction that takes on additional resonance when death is added to the equation: Suddenly, the experience that promises to unite us most closely with another human being can lead directly to the experience that will separate us not only from the lover but from the whole living world. Here, it’s Veronica’s affair with the bisexual and seductive Duncan that seems like the purest form of love: an operatic passion that quite consciously involves and seeks not only self-sacrifice but self-destruction.

One aspect of Gaitskill’s fiction that has never seemed more paradoxically subtle and explicit than it does in this book is its undercurrent of religiosity. For a writer who has proved so refreshingly offhand and relaxed about exploring the kinkier frontiers of sexuality, Gaitskill has always seemed (at least to me) possessed by an almost Calvinist vision of sin and damnation, of guilt and expiation. As Alison muses in the last third of the novel, “By the time I moved to New York, I had not prayed for many years. But there was a soft dark place where prayer had been and sometimes my mind wandered into it. Sometimes this softness was restful and kind. Sometimes it was not. Sometimes when I went into it, I felt like a little piece of flesh chewed by giant teeth. I felt that everyone was being chewed. To ease my terror, I pictured beautiful cows with liquid eyes eating acres of grass with loose jaws. I said to myself, Don’t be afraid. Everything is meant to be chewed, and also to keep making more flesh to be chewed. All prayer is prayer to the giant teeth.”

The AIDS era was, perhaps needless to say, a time when those concepts (sin, etc.) and the giant teeth surfaced from our Puritan background and took (or resumed) their place in the forefront of mass consciousness. Throughout Veronica, I found myself thinking of its characters, punished excessively for looking for love in all the wrong places, as figures writhing in the teeming hells envisioned by Netherlandish painters. Here, as elsewhere, Gaitskill is the poet of bad sex:

Fucking Gregory Carson was like falling down the rabbit hole and seeing things flying by without knowing what they meant. Except I was the rabbit hole at the same time, and he was stuffing things down it like crazy, just throwing everything in, like he couldn’t get rid of it fast enough … Like he was stuffing me full of him so that any picture of me would be a picture of him, too, because people who looked would see him staring out of my eyes.

But in this book, for the first time, the awkward, unsatisfying, or painful sexual encounter can result not only in making a character feel worse than she did before but can prove fatal. The punishment is no longer a playful spanking, as it was in her story collection, Bad Behavior. In Veronica, alienated sex, and indeed all sex, has become, or has the potential to become, a capital crime.

Another image (in addition to the Netherlandish hells) that kept creeping, unbidden, into my mind while I was reading Veronica was Robert Mapplethorpe’s late portrait of himself as a wasted, moribund Satan. The image is, of course, thematically relevant to the novel and to the historical period in which it is set. But more important, the way the Mapplethorpe photograph imprints itself on one’s mind seems somehow illustrative of what I mean about how we recall a certain sort of novel. Trying to recollect more conventional fictions, we may find ourselves paging back through them, searching for some forgotten plot turn, some event or aspect of character. But like the Mapplethorpe photo, Veronica places no such strain on our memory. It creates an atmosphere, provokes a response, and suffuses us with an emotion that we can easily, all too easily, summon up. It’s art that you can continue to see even with your eyes closed.