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Book review: Death remembered

Death foretold

QUALITY NOT QUANTITY: It's been a good year for the less-than-prolific Mary Gaitskill.

Last year was a good year for Mary Gaitskill. How often does a fiction writer get both a National Book Award nomination and a mention on The L-Word? All this for a writer who has taken a more leisurely approach to publication — four books over 17 years isn’t exactly the kind of output that boosts an author’s profile. On the other hand, output isn’t everything.

Gaitskill has always written stories that display a twisted sensibility. Her first collection of short fiction, Bad Behavior, was published in 1988 and featured an impressive assortment of characters, mostly females in their 20s having unconventional sexual relationships. The collection could serve as a warped version of white, urban heterosexual mating rituals of the ’80s. In 1991 she published Two Girls, Fat And Thin, a novel that had distinctly queer undertones and, again, a decidedly unconventional edge to it. I remember being absolutely caught up, reading it twice in the space of about two years because it didn’t seem possible that I got everything the first time through.

Because They Wanted To was published in 1997 and mined the same terrain as Gaitskill’s earlier work. These short stories depict both the excesses of urban life, sexual, chemical and otherwise, and the seemingly futile search for connection.

It’s a theme she returns to in her latest novel, Veronica. Over the course of the book, the main character, Alison, an ex-model in her 40s, reflects on her relationship with an older woman named Veronica who died of AIDS in the ’80s.

“When I knew Veronica,” Alison recalls, “I was healthy and beautiful, and I thought I was so great for being friends with somebody who was ugly and sick. I told stories about her to anybody who would listen. I can just hear my high, clear voice describing her antics, her kooky remarks. I can hear the voices of people congratulating me for being good. For being brave…. Now I’m ugly and sick. I don’t know how long I’ve had hepatitis — probably about 15 years. It’s only been in the last year that the weakness, the sick stomach and the fever have kicked up. Sometimes I’m scared, sometimes I feel like I’ll be okay. Right now, I’m just glad I don’t have to deal with a beautiful girl telling me I have to learn to love myself.”

If the AIDS novels of the late ’80s and early ’90s were infused with a sense of urgency, confusion and with an overwhelming element of tragedy — necessary at the time — the current perspective, which features a much more detached view, is radically different. What Gaitskill does here is remind the reader of those early times in vivid detail. When she describes the illness and deaths of Veronica’s bisexual boyfriend and Veronica herself, the scenes are full of what were once commonplace details: an ignorant, judgmental and inadequate healthcare system with almost nothing to offer in terms of treatment and no public awareness or support.

The novel is set in the present time, as Alison performs a number of relatively ordinary activities in a relatively ordinary day. But Gaitskill sets up a series of threads that run through Alison’s head. She talks about growing up in the ’60s, leaving home in New Jersey at 17, becoming a model in Paris and then making a comeback in New York a few years later. The details about her modelling career are chilling rather than glamourous, and the shifts back to Alison’s current life give it a particularly surreal quality.

Another thread involves her relationship with her family: her father who has never recovered from the loss of his brother in World War II, her mother’s death of cancer and her seemingly ordinary sisters. But the family is mere background as the story eventually focusses on Veronica and her death.

Alison as a character is tremendously self-absorbed even as she unravels the tangle of memory that her own illness has triggered. To be middle-aged, sick and emotionally unconnected isn’t pretty. Gaitskill pulls all the strands together at the conclusion of the novel, but the effect is disconcerting rather than satisfying. Gaitskill probably wouldn’t have it any other way.