"What do you plan to do with your one, wild, precious life?" -Mary Oliver

Monday, March 19, 2012

Gaitskill's Camera


VERONICA, by Mary Gaitskill is horrifying and cruel, and impossible to put down.  It’s a raw, disturbing critique of the modeling industry: the pimps and photographers, the exploitation and narcissism. But it’s also the tender story of an unlikely friendship between two disparate women in 1980s New York. Throughout the novel, Gaitskill moves seamlessly back and forth between past and present, so effortlessly you barely realize she’s doing it.

The story begins when Allison is middle-aged and cleans offices, but with a body so wrecked she can barely wash windows. Gaitskill then takes us back in time to a sixteen-year-old girl who is oblivious to fashion. She runs away from home and meets a fashion model and is drawn to the lure of modeling.
From Allison’s first shoot with an agent:

I didn’t know how to pose but it didn’t matter. Then he said he had to see me naked.
“We aren’t taking any more pictures,”he said. “No one ever shoots you nude. I have to look at you because I’m the agent.”
He turned the music off and looked at me. “You’re five pounds overweight,” he said gently. “And your breasts aren’t that good.” He touched my cheek with the back of his hand. “But right now, that doesn’t matter.”
Veronica is the eccentric middle-aged office temp Allison first meets while working between modeling jobs as a temp doing word processing for an ad agency in Manhattan. Plump, with bleached blonde hair and a loud sensual voice, Veronica is the complete opposite of Allison. She proofreads like a cop with a nightstick, and her voice resonates with "been there, done that". 
"Excuse me hon, but I’m very well acquainted with the use of the semicolon.”
Then Allison gets a chance to go to Paris to work the runway. This is a passage from shortly after she arrives:
He said I needed a haircut. Called a hairdresser, told him what to do, and sent me to the salon in a taxi. The salon was full of wrinkled women staring fixedly at models in magazines. When I walked in, they frowned and glared. But the girl at the desk smiled and led me through rows of gleaming dryers, each with a woman under it, dreaming angrily in the heat. The hairdresser didn’t even need to talk to me. He talked to someone else while I stared at myself in the mirror.
This is one of the more caustic scenes from a shoot with a photographer who was considered an artist:
The girl was fifteen and he spent the whole day telling her she was bloated and fat.
“The lips are too thin, Andre. Can you work with that? And while you’re at it, do something about those bags under the eyes.”
I was drinking orange soda and giggling with a stylist.
“My God!” cried the photographer, throwing another Polaroid on the ground. “Can’t you do better than that? Do you even know what fucking is?”
The girl’s mouth quivered. She was thin-lipped for a model.
I tipped my head back to look at the deep and bright blue sky.
“Okay,” the photographer sighed. “Look. We’re going to be shooting from the waist up only. Just put your hand down your pants and make yourself feel good.”
The girl’s mouth was twisted with embarrassment. Tears shone on her face.
“You haven’t got the lips!” yelled the photographer, “so use your eyes! You’ve got the eyes! Use them!”

Paris doesn't work out. Cheated out of her money and locked out of her apartment, Allison moves back to New York. Her career takes off again. She gets a larger apartment. As soon as she does, the work falls off. 
I was supposed to be in a swimsuit spread, but I stood next to a girl with big boobs and a butt like a mare and the photographer said, "You look like her twelve-year old sister!" During an evening-wear shoot a client suddenly appeared with a tape measure and held it to my hips and said, "Look at this! We can't have this!"

Later, over sushi, a friend asks her, "Were you about to have your period, by any chance?"

And finally, this is from a conversation that Veronica and Allison have much later about pleasing people:

Veronica drew on her cigarette, blew out. “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.”
It’s her show, and it’s her story as much as Allison’s. While reading this, I kept thinking about all the beauty pageants little girls are entered in: Princess this and Princess that, pitting them against each other to see who’s the cutest when they’re barely out of diapers. I wish that anyone thinking to subject a little girl to that would first read VERONICA.

8 comments:

Jemi Fraser said...

Wow - sounds like an incredible story. A few people suggested I put my daughter in modelling - no way. So glad I didn't even consider it. What a harsh world these folks live in.

Yvonne Osborne said...

Jemi,
It a very good book, with a subject I thought worthy of talking about. Young girls today seem more interested in fashion than more serious issues. I'm glad you didn't put your daughter in modeling. Thanks for commenting.

Mama Zen said...

This sounds like a riveting read!

Yvonne Osborne said...

Mama Zen,
Thank you. It was. Glad you commented!

Suzanne Casamento said...

This book sounds really disturbing.

AMEN to what you wrote about little girls and the princess pageants.

Yvonne Osborne said...

Suzanne,
Thanks. It was disturbing, but honest and even uplifting at the end. I never knew (but suspected) the hell fashion models go through. At one point in the narrative a character states, "Everyone hates it but does it for a couple of years to make a bunch of money."

Thanks for commenting.

ManicDdaily said...

I've had the book for some time but haven't read it yet. I've read all of Gaitskill's other books--the stories--and Two Girls Fat and Thin. There's definitely a disturbing edge though she's very good. Thanks for reminding me of this. K.

Yvonne Osborne said...

ManicD.
Thank you so much for commenting on this. She's so brutally honest, it's often disturbing. I had the book for a while too before I read it. I'm glad I did. Thanks again for noticing this post.