Veronica follows a woman named Alison, who, from a young age, pursues pleasure and beauty. She becomes a model while still a teenager and travels to Paris. A turbulent love affair, a nightmarish S-and-M club, and other extremes introduce her to what people are capable of; she returns to her home in New Jersey where she tries to become just another community college student. Mary Gaitskill writes with cold clarity about the uglier emotions. Eventually, she lands in New York. Gaitskill’s prose is blistering:
“My sublet was a loft in the meatpacking district, a labyrinth of sleeping rough-faced buildings with sweet and rotten breath…Late that night, the sleeping buildings woke and opened for business. I stood in a window as tall as a door and watched heavy trucks feed fresh-killed beef to an openmouthed warehouse across the street. The light from the open mouth shone on one and a half cows at a time, their bodies hanging inverted on the conveyor belt, heads wagging on fresh-cut throats, horned shadows nodding on the warehouse wall. The belt droned and the massed corpses danced with jiggling forefeet. The man operating the belt whistled a song. A snout and gentle brow was flung out, then rolled back into the mass. The man driving the truck joked with the man running the belt. I can accept this, I thought. I can live this life.”
In the city, Alison meets Veronica. It’s the ’80s and Veronica is one of many New Yorkers dying of AIDS. A counterpoint to the fiercely male novels that focus on the same time period—Bright Lights, Big City, American Psycho—Veronica has the additional advantage of hindsight. If McInerney was still bright-eyed about the possibility of the city, and Ellis was furious and dejected, Gaitskill, writing in the 2000s, is calm. She observes the fallout and writes from a distance.