I finished the novel “Veronica” by Mary Gaitskill the other night but halfway through I was already trying to decide if I liked it or not. Even after thinking about it for a couple of days, I can only say I admire it.
The story is told in the first person, narrated by Allison, a former model who is now old and sick with hepatitis. The basis of the novel is her friendship with an older woman she meets while temping in an office. This friendship with Veronica is told in flashbacks.
I definitely don’t mind the use of flashbacks or framing devices when they are done well, but a third of the way through “Veronica,” I found myself skipping the present-day story line to get back to the flashbacks about her earlier life.
Gaitskill has a wonderful gift of language. The present-day story has the lyricism of poetry, while the past is told more straightforward – though of course still wonderfully written. The problem is I don’t like poetry. I admire it.
When I read novels, I want a story I can sink my teeth into. And the plot of “Veronica” is interesting enough, I just don’t think it goes deep enough and the poetry-like writing distracted me even more. Maybe, with Allison being a model, the story isn’t meant to be deep but I ended the novel wishing it was. (Of course there are differing opinions of “Veronica.” The NY Times named it one of the best books of 2005.)
One technique that I didn’t like at all was the persistent use of the word, “I.”
It seemed as though every sentence began with “I.” While it’s hard to avoid the use of “I” in first person, this narcissism only added to the shallowness of Allison and the novel.
Many times throughout the novel Allison does something nice and knows that her actions “look nice.” But she acknowledges that she doesn’t feel nice inside. This was repeated too many times for me to think it was a fluke – it felt instead a disingenuous way for Gaitskill to say “look, my character admits she isn’t nice, but really, you can that she it.”
But she’s not. I didn’t like Allison for a moment in the book. And I’m not saying that a writer must create likable characters, but there should be some reason we want to read about them. A reason to keep turning the page other than great sentences.
Think about Ignatius J. Reilly in “A Confederacy of Dunces.”
I would not for a moment want to be in the same room, or even the same town, with Ignatius. But I certainly enjoy reading his story. Over and over again.