Friday, November 04, 2005

Chartreuse

I have blogged before about why I find Poppy Z. Brite such a compelling writer. She's really, really excellent; plagued now, I think, by fans who want to hang on to her early mode of goth-vampire-queer-teenager-inflected fiction and who have not understood the extent to which her new crime novels make an even more appealing and effective sequel/next stage in her writing career than more vampire/horror books. I am very strongly drawn to her fiction, and on the plane on the way back from LA read most of the highly enjoyable Lost Souls. I still haven't read Liquor, but must get hold of a copy at once.

The chartreuse in Mary Gaitskill's Veronica is a color not a drink, but the sensibilities have something in common. (Reading these two books in a row made me think about which I'd choose, a decadent downtown-Manhattan-in-the-70s art-scene burnout or a small-town southern queer Goth rock-n-roll one? Actually, of course it's no contest, the second is much more appealing. Though I suppose the first is easier to imagine myself in. I still feel like I was there in spirit for those early Velvet Underground shows, isn't that absurd?)

I have mixed feelings about this novel now that I've finished it. There are things I really loved, and Gaitskill's cool--cold--sensibility is something I find remarkable. I also like the combination of flat affect with ethical reflection. But I'd say that Two Girls, Fat and Thin is the more astonishing novel of the two. (The stories in Bad Behavior are pretty great too. I believe that Gaitskill more or less disavowed the movie Secretary, loosely based on one of these stories. But it's a great movie: I never see any movies, but my friend P. saw it and basically called me up and said "You HAVE to see this movie!" and took me to it not long afterwards to make sure I didn't weasel out, as I often do with films; and it is fantastic. It would be psychologically truer if it ended in the middle, with Maggie G. in complete abjection and misery; but I liked the fairy-tale ending. And what is REALLY good, but I couldn't find a link to online, is an essay Gaitskill published a little while ago in the Washington Post, about hosting children for summer vacations through the Fresh Air Fund. If it wasn't included in that year's Best American Essays collection, it should have been.)

What I like about Gaitskill's writing is its painful urgency and moral seriousness. But I'm not sure this time around that the sentences can bear the weight she asks them to. I marked a few different passages that struck me, but in each case the language felt slightly flat, not so much emotionally affectless as under-listened-to (or in the other sensory metaphor, not read with a sharp enough eye). Here's one set of sentences, about the narrator Alison's sort-of-friendship with a rich girl called Ceclia:

I understood that Cecilia looked at me as an object with specific functions, because that's how I looked at her. Without knowing it, that is how I looked at everyone who came into my life then. This wasn't because I had no feelings. I wanted to know people. I wanted to love. But I didn't realize how badly I had been hurt. I didn't realize that my habit of distance had become so unconscious and deep that I didn't know how to be with another person. I could only fix that person in my imagination and turn him this way and that, trying to feel him, until my mind was tired and raw.

Those words "tired and raw" make the rest of the paragraph work for me, but out of context I'm not sure it works. In another passage that caught my eye, here's Alison telling the story of her friend Veronica's "coarse and sentimental stories," including one about "being raped by a man who broke into her apartment" that includes the line (Veronica's line) "'My rapist was very tender'":

Smart people would say she spoke that way about the story because she was trying to take control over it, because she wanted to deny the pain of it, even make herself superior to it. This is probably true. Smart people would also say that sentimentality always indicates a lack of feeling. Maybe this is true, too. But I'm sure she truly thought the rapist was tender. If he'd had a flash of tenderness anywhere in him, a memory of his mother, of himself as a baby, of a toy, she would've felt it because she was desperate for it. Even though it had nothing to do with her, she would've sought it, reaching for it as it sank away in a deep pool. I'll be looking at the moon, but I'll be seeing---

Or this description of a picture from a photo-shoot with Alison and "two other girls, one of whom was an unstable lesbian with dark, dramatic looks and a known hard-on for the other, a bland blonde from Norway who didn't speak English" (see, there the diction's more interesting, I like that "bland blonde from Norway" sequence, I don't know what happened to intensify the consonant thing but it's good):

At the end, [the photographer] had Pia strip down to her underwear and hurl herself onto the fence, like she was 'trying to get to Ava,' grabbing it with her hands and bare feet. Most models of Pia's stature would never have done that. But he knew she would. She was half out of her mind with lovelessness and rage, and she wanted people to see it--she wanted it revealed and articulated. She threw herself at the fence again and again, until her hands and feet were bleeding. That shot ran at the end of a three-page spread and it was a great picture; Pia's nakedness was blurred by the fence and by her motion, but her face and flying hair came at you like demon beauty bursting out of darkness to devour human beauty. Ava and I huddled together in our pale spring lace, two maids lost in a postmodern wood, she moving forward, me half-turning toward the demon who silently howled at us with her great gold eyes, her genital mouth and long flawless claws with just a hint of anguish in their swollen knuckles. Of course, you didn't see any blood. You didn't see human pain on the demon's face--or rather, you saw it as a shadow, a slight darkness that foregrounded the beauty of the picture and gave it a sort of luscious depth. It was a page-stopper. It restarted my career.

I think that's the best paragraph in the book. Pretty amazing, no? Gaitskill should be writing urban fantasy...

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