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Dark side of perfection

In 'Veronica,' novelist Mary Gaitskill uses AIDS, fashion and an unlikely friendship to strike at what she calls unrealistic expectations.

October 09, 2005|Charles Casillo | Special to The Times

Rhinebeck, N.Y. — AN interviewer once asked author Mary Gaitskill if she is as unhappy as her stories are dark. "I'm not happy or unhappy," Gaitskill replied. "I'm Mary." In Gaitskill's complicated world, there are no clear-cut descriptions, no black-and-white answers. "I've always been a little bothered by people who divide people or experiences into wholly happy or unhappy," she says.

It is the gray areas, those in-betweens, that Gaitskill explores in her body of work and the filter through which her characters grapple with the complexities of their lives.

The misfits, professionals, prostitutes and S&M enthusiasts that populate her short stories share inner confusions and perversions, coexisting with cruelty and tenderness, each fighting for dominance. Her characters are often searching for connection, for love, for sexual gratification, for answers. They are lonely, get involved with the wrong people, worry about losing their looks. And on the inside, they are a mystery -- even to themselves. Gaitskill looks in, fascinated and unflinching. "Some people I feel I can understand very quickly," she says, "others not at all."

Her second novel, "Veronica," publishing Tuesday, centers on a beautiful young model's multifaceted friendship with an eccentric older woman who becomes sick with HIV. "Veronica" is narrated by ex-model Alison Owen. Now in middle age, her glittering career far behind her, Alison travels to her degrading job cleaning offices -- she suffers the pain and fatigue brought on by hepatitis C and a car accident. Like Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, she will relive "a woman's whole life in a single day" to try to reach peace and understanding.

During her journey, objects, scenes from movies, pieces of dreams and bits of a fairy tale all touch her memory, bringing back fragments from her turbulent past that will ultimately reveal her rise and fall as a model and her strange and complicated friendship with an unconventional middle-aged woman named Veronica who died of AIDS complications.

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly says "Gaitskill's style is gorgeously caustic and penetrating with a homing instinct toward the harrowing; her ability to capture abstract feelings and sensations with a precise and unexpected metaphor is a squirmy delight to encounter in such abundance."

In Gaitskill's idiom, we listen to "a fool on a radio show promote her book." The fool "blooms out of the radio like a balloon with a face on it, smiling, wanting you to like her, vibrating with things to say." A friend is "a short guy with a big head on a long rubbery neck that operates like a rotating turret, and words spray from his mouth like bullets."

She frequently uses music to stir emotions in Alison's nostalgic meditation. "I love music as an art form," Gaitskill says, sipping a glass of white wine at her dining room table in upstate New York.

Her modest, two-story home sits on a quiet street, where neighbors have plenty of elbow room between houses. "If I could sing I probably would never have written. To me, music expresses things that are beyond words, really. It communicates so many complex things directly and simultaneously. It gets into your nervous system instantly in a way that writing can't."

The book weaves scenes from Alison's life -- past and present -- like notes into a symphony. But it is her relationship with Veronica she tries the hardest to penetrate. What was the beautiful Alison's affinity to this odd, garish woman?

Gaitskill suggests that none of us totally reveal ourselves. We remain shielded behind our masks, whether beautiful or flamboyant. "People are trapped in these forms that they don't understand and are clawing at each other wanting to be something better," she says. "We have a longing and a potential for this sort of genuine, fully expressed kindness and intelligence and connection that is always stopped because of what we are as people."

At 51, she possesses delicate good looks and a fragile aura. She is slender, blond, dressed in a pale beige sleeveless dress with occasional bursts of subdued flowers. She is authoritative and articulate but can suddenly appear shy, with occasional downward glances, and even blushing at times. The blend of vulnerable attractiveness and drop-dead cool with fierce intelligence is a dynamic component in her allure.

Adapting to acclaim

GAITSKILL'S first book of short stories, "Bad Behavior," electrified the publishing world in 1988 and earned her a devoted following (one of the stories was adapted into the film "Secretary"). She went from working hand-to-mouth jobs to the forefront of young American writers. "Suddenly, these stories I had written in my tiny apartment were being discussed in major publications," she says.

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