Two girls, beautiful and ugly, meet in an office in Eighties New York. Alison is a young model, seduced and abandoned by the fashion industry. Veronica is a fortysomething proof-reader with a fractious personality and an idiosyncratic blend of elegance and bad taste. "In her plaid suit, ruffled blouse and bow tie, she was like a human cuckoo-clock." She also has Aids. What Alison wonders, attracts her to this ruined fag-hag? Yet both have been willingly abused by a society devoid of compassion and tenderness.
At 15, Alison flees her middle-American family to drift through Haight-Ashbury, dropping drugs and writing poetry until discovered by a lecherous entrepreneur. Stardom means Paris, parties, clubs, vile photographers, larcenous agents and more drugs. When she publicly insults her powerful lover, she is effectively blacklisted and her Swiss bank account frozen. Back on the skids in New York, she remains in thrall to this world of "demons and suffering", which she regards as "heaven" and claws back to, with disastrous results.
Veronica is an intense study of pain, illness, rejection, and of glamour's tyranny. This Gaitskill achieves in writing that transcends mere style. Her unique language allows her to probe her characters' psyches with microscopic observation and relentless originality. The novel is richly metaphorical, and image succeeds startling image with a breathless, yet precise, invention that can threaten to swamp the story. A model's eyes "give off the cold glow of an eel whipping through remote waters"; Veronica dances with "manic propriety".
The intricate structure shuffles the present with Alison's multiple pasts, sometimes on the same page and in short paragraphs, suggestive of a life flashing before someone's eyes in the moment preceding death. Deserted by her friends, Veronica contemplates her death, with only Alison to support and attempt to console her. Difficult to the end, she dies alone except for a cat and the television. But, says Alison, at least she fought. The two wounded women have discovered a mutual understanding and love.
Now nearly 50 and with her looks destroyed, Alison lives in Los Angeles, cleaning houses and coping, badly, with hepatitis C. Yet she experiences moments of "joy and gratitude". The beauty of nature, communication with a kindred soul, the family she once despised and, above all, Veronica's friendship have redeemed her. "I was saved by another demon, who looked on me with pity and so became human again. And because I pitied her in return, I was allowed to become human too." The book is occasionally repetitious, but far more often illuminating and moving. Gaitskill's talent is both prodigious and refined, and she is unafraid to articulate the anguished thoughts and feelings from which we prefer to turn away.
Serpent's Tail 10.99 (257pp) 9.89 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897Reuse content