Sunday, January 06, 2008

50 Book Challenge #3: Veronica

"Prettiness is always about pleasing people. When you stop being pretty, you don't have do that anymore. I don't have to do that anymore. It's my show now."
My general aversion to literary fiction has several distinct roots: a disdain for its frequent focus on the delicate epiphanies of an aging bourgeois; an aversion to writing that seems self-consciously clever to the detriment of clarity, plot, and characterization; even (to my occasional shame) my utter disinterest in modernity. But occasionally a book that breaks through these barriers and, despite its acclaim in middlebrow literary circles, earns my appreciation. Veronica is such a book.

We considered it for the blog book club some time back, but only after the Arlington Central Library failed to yield up my preferred trash did I return to it. My only previous encounter with Gaitskill was mediated by Maggie Gyllenhaal and thus I approached her latest novel with few expectations.

The center of the book is Veronica, a brassy, fierce woman befriended by Alison, the narrator, after Alison loses her place as a runway model but before she loses everything else. This is not chick lit; this is women's writing, unsuppressed and unexpurgated. It is worth reading for the prose alone, and Constant Readers of this blog will recognize how rarely I would say that. Gaitskill's turns of phrase occasionally approach the Nabokovian, and are often all the more impressive for their psychological insight. The flashback structure would be jarring but reader will eagerly anticipate the transitions (Alison's past is more engaging than her present, as the second half of the book documents a hike in this narrative thread). I confess to disappointment at what I realized, after the fact, to be certain autobiographical aspects, but these are quibbles based on prejudices and not actual weaknesses of the novel.

If you like Alice Munro, Elvis Costello, or fine prose, read this book.

UPDATE: The worst part about good writing is the subsequent inability to appreciate the barely-serviceable prose found in most genre novels. Alison isn't the only one who fell from heaven.
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