Veronica: If there’s nobody watching, what’s the point?

15 December 2016

Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica is our latest Classic. Shortlisted for the National Book Award when it came out in 2005, the novel explores the thrilling and alienating sides of glamour. Marketing manager Flora Willis sees parallels in the attitudes to beauty explored in the novel and our relationship with social media today.

It’s a prickly feeling you get while reading Veronica. An uncomfortable feeling, like someone is watching you. A sense that someone is appraising someone, more often than not.

You shut the book and go online. Scrolling through your social media, you see friends in nice clothes at sparkling parties, cakes with pastel icing, babies laid on 100% pure Scandinavian wool diamond weave blankets. Young models lounge in bra tops and older actresses flaunt wrinkle-free skin, gripping a make-up stick like a knife in their hand. You consider uploading a photo of yourself but only after you’ve edited it using the beautification app your younger sister told you about. You glance over at the cover of Veronica. The girl on the cover is bent over, doing up her strappy silver sandal that she wears over glittery tights. You think, I could never pull off that outfit.

Dualities pervade Veronica: beautiful and ugly, success and failure, us and them. Written in 1992 and set in the 1980s, Alison’s story starts with a fairytale told to her by her mother: a beautiful girl is banished to an underworld of ‘demons and deformed creatures’ as punishment for being cruel. It’s supposed to be a warning, but in her mother’s voice, Alison hears ‘a girl who wants to be too beautiful but also the mother who wants to love her, and the demon who wants to torture her’. The warnings fall away; all that remains is the lure of too-beautiful.

The story skips forward to the present day. Middle-aged and ill, Alison looks back on herself when she was a beautiful, rebellious teenager. A girl who, as Gaitskill writes of her younger self in her introduction, ‘wanted beauty, not merely physical beauty, but the heightened pitch of existence the magazines hinted at.’ The same existence shown to us when we go online and see models, cakes, pure wool blankets.

Spurred on by her mother’s bitterness (‘She thinks being pretty will make her way’), teenage Alison runs away from home, soon moving to Paris to model, where she lives a feverish existence of parties, sex, cruelty, viewed through beauty-tinted spectacles. On a shoot, a young model called Lisa is humiliated but to Alison ‘Her face was ravaged and fevered, but she was erect … She looked amazing.’ In a nightclub, ‘People’s faces look like masks with snouts and beaks. But I knew they were beautiful.’

This high is short-lived. Alison’s agent cons her out of all her earnings, forcing her to return home, where she is bored and depressed – and cruel. Sharing a bed with her sister, she thinks, ‘I wanted her to know that she was a dog, ugly and poor. I wanted all of them to know.’ Us and them. Her head is full of memories of Paris, the nightclubs and the characters she knew there. She describes to her sister the sight of Lisa in an S&M club – but ‘Lisa was not looking at me.’ And now her sister: ‘She was not looking at me either.’ What’s the point if no one is looking at you? So Alison moves to New York City, even if it means temping in an office.

Is she lost to superficiality? Almost. Then, she meets Veronica.

Veronica is twenty years older than Alison. She represents a duality of ‘elegance and ugliness together’ that at once attracts and repels Alison. Veronica has been the pretty girl; now she is plump, tasteless, old-fashioned. But her honesty is addictive. This line resonates with Alison (and today’s Tumblr community):

‘Prettiness is always about pleasing people. When you stop being pretty, you don’t have to do that anymore. I don’t have to do that anymore. It’s my show now.’

And off she struts ‘like a movie star’. Alison is stunned by Veronica’s ownership of all that is ugly in her life. Later, when Veronica is dying from AIDS, Alison can only make sense of her plight by comparing it to a dramatic rock song, ‘dramatic and a little dark’. It’s a hollow offering to a dying woman – ‘This isn’t a rock song, hon’ – the ‘realest’ person Alison knows.

Now, the same age as Veronica when she died, with hepatitis gnawing painfully at her own body, Alison utters her own version of Veronica’s words: ‘I don’t have to do that anymore. It’s nobody’s show now.’ Alison can only align ugliness with failure. If nobody’s watching, does she even exist? In her introduction, Gaitskill refers to ‘the social clothing with which we dress our raw unknowable selves, searching for a form that will be recognized and understood by others, that can move in this world, love and be loved.’The photos we upload. The filters we put on them. Who are we putting those pictures out there for, and what are we sacrificing when we do it? Whose show do we think it is, exactly?

But Alison is feeling her way towards understanding, slowly, like she’s using her fingertips in the dark. ‘If we were a story, Veronica and I would be about a bedraggled prostitute taking refuge in the kitchen with the kindly old cook… They are part of the scene and they add to it. But they are not the story.’ Nobody’s show. If not redemption, then acceptance. Acceptance of ugliness, but no longer a struggle for beauty. Of failure, but no longer a struggle for success. To Alison, she and Veronica made each other human: and she is happy to become ‘one of them.’

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