I've heard a lot about what a great writer Mary Gaitskill is. Looking through the descriptions of her books, though, they seemed to be about subjects that didn't interest me: obsession, addiction, porn, and what sounded like self-conscious flirting with sexual kinks. I pictured a smiling two-year-old sneaking looks at you out of the corner of her eye as she reaches for the glass bowl she's been told not to touch.
What I found is something quite different. If the mark of a great writer is her ability to immerse you in her world and the life of her characters, Gaitskill is a great writer. Even more so given the flimsy material she chose to work with in this novel.
We first meet Alison when she is, by her own account, old and sick, her beauty gone. She's in her forties, which tells you a lot about her right there. She reflects on her life, running away from home at 15, eventually becoming a model. However, since she is shallow and undisciplined, we cannot expect a deep and disciplined narrative. It jumps around in time, held together by a tenuous web of associations. Supremely self-centered, we cannot expect Alison to understand, much less help us comprehend, the other people in her life, including Veronica, the odd friend she makes while working as an office temp before going back to modeling.
If this sounds like a book you don't want to read, think again. Alison is curiously innocent, like a Parzival set adrift in the whirling, wicked world of 1980s New York and Paris. Despite her self-centeredness, she has no sense of who she is; there is an empty space at her center which she fills with the reflections of herself in others' eyes. She runs away from home because that is what teens do in the tv movies that scare her parents. The only thing she seems to know about herself is that she is beautiful, and she knows that not because she admires herself, but because everyone tells her so (though two modeling agents say that her breasts are “not good”). She takes up with an agent in Paris, not because she loves him but because he expects her to.
That lack of self-knowledge is why she is drawn to Veronica, a much older, ugly and flamboyant copy-editor. Obnoxious and rude, Veronica speaks her mind. She says, “‘Prettiness is all about pleasing other people . . . I don't have to do that anymore. It's my show now.' She said these words as if she were a movie star.”
One of Gaitskill's techniques that I loved is the way Alison describes some key moments in terms of ten pictures. Of the conversation quoted above, she says, “Imagine ten pictures of this conversation. In nine of them she's the fool, and I'm the person who has something. But in the tenth I'm the fool, and it's her show now. For just a second, that's the picture I saw.” It's an extraordinary way to show both how much it takes to pierce Alison's insensitivity and how she changes her view of herself based on what other people see.
Alison is proud of herself for befriending this woman who is old and ugly and, eventually, ill. Veronica contracts AIDS from her beloved bisexual on-again/off-again boyfriend, Duncan, who can't be bothered with protection even when he knows he is sick. We are enveloped in the frantic hedonism of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when so much was rumored and so little understood, when it seemed as though there would be no tomorrow, no need to save any of yourself for a mythical old age.
Although we never really get to know Veronica, since we see her only through Alison's narcissistic eyes, we see her effect on Alison, who comes to regret bragging to others about the peculiar old woman she has befriended.
The writing is indeed excellent. Other reviewers have talked about her word choice and word-pairing, how her sentences seem to hold you off while hinting at their secrets. I liked the interplay of “old” Alison's story with her “wicked” youth. I liked the motifs that, like knots in a net, keep the whole flimsy tale from dissipating into air. This story will stay with me for a long time.
What books have you liked in spite of yourself?