Entertainment & the Arts: Friday, October 21, 2005

“Veronica”: The soulful memoir of a fallen model

By Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

In the past, memoirists borrowed form from novelists. Now novelists are borrowing from memoirists. Intensely personal narratives find an eager audience in our confessional times, especially where there’s a dose of sordidness.

One of the compelling qualities about Mary Gaitskill’s early fiction was its autobiographical flavor. When she arrived on the literary scene in 1988, she was promoted as a former prostitute, stripper and teenage runaway — she sounded teasingly similar to some of her characters.

“Veronica,” her second novel and a National Book Award finalist, is the reminiscence of Alison Owen, a model from the ’80s who ends up alone and broke after a car crash ends her career.

The title character is secondary. This is Alison’s story and, like a memoir, it’s an attempt to make sense of who she is and where she’s been.

“You want to say, This is me; this is who I am. But you don’t even know what it is, or what it’s for. Time parts its shabby curtain. There is my father, listening to his music hard enough to break his own heart. Trying to borrow shapes for his emotions so that he may hold them out to the world and the world might say, Yes, we see. We feel. We understand.”

Gaitskill’s characters often are on the hunt for understanding and connection. “I wanted to love,” Alison explains. “But I didn’t realize how badly I had been hurt. I didn’t realize that my habit of distance had become so unconscious and deep that I didn’t know how to be with another person.”

Alison develops a peculiar friendship, a connection that might save her, with the uncomely Veronica, who dies of AIDS. The narrative skips around from the ’80s to the present and from Paris to New York, driven primarily by Gaitskill’s engaging and penetrating style.

Never before in fiction has a model been this knowing, this feeling or this poetic. Yet every sentence rings true. Gaitskill is talented enough to make you believe that the memoir of a fallen model can be as soulful as it is sordid.

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Mark Lindquist