Monday, June 15, 2009


Things slowed down enough over the weekend to whittle away at the stack of books by my reading chair. One day I read Ivan Doig’s “The Eleventh Man” and the next I finished Mary Gaitskill’s “Veronica.” It’s hard to imagine two more different books, and yet there is plenty of similarity. For one thing, both of these authors are poets who barely suppress, if at all, their impulse toward metaphor, simile, and other vivid word play. For another, both plots consist of a series of deaths. The difference is partly that between the time periods: Doig is writing about World War II and Gaitskill is writing about now. Doig’s casualties of battle are matched by Gaitskill’s casualties of AIDS.

Both include scenes of sex, naturally, but Doig’s are monogamous on the part of his male hero (not his partner) and Gaitskill’s are serial and sometimes trivial if not predatory. Doig’s are partly produced by adrenaline and Gaitskill’s the search for comfort. Neither is particularly pornographic, though Doig’s are more conventional, which is what one would expect.

Ivan Doig has been Valier’s identified author for a long time. This is the country he writes about, fictionalized and merged into the “Two” country in honor of the Two Medicine River. People around here and elsewhere love his accounts of the Scots ranchers along the east front of the Rockies. He ties most of his plots to some historical event, since much of his original training was in history and journalism. Dams attract him, as in “Bucking the Sun” and “The Whistling Season,” and sometimes a bit of social advocacy as in “Prairie Nocturne” about a black man with a big singing voice. But his audience resists when he does that.

This particular book hinges on the WASPs, a little-known group of women pilots who ferried airplanes around the country in order to free up the men to fly combat. It doesn’t seem quite so revolutionary for those who have watched their twenty-something female airline pilot walk up the aisle to the cockpit or who have heard news accounts of the nicely manicured female bomber pilots in the Middle East, flying so high they must operate from an electronic screen, no less than the keyboard jockeys in the US Predator drones that fly over Pakistan.

All of the characters are pretty cut and dried, from the smarmy guy with wealth who slides by to the “animal” who thrives on the military life. The other part of the plot design is about a mythical football team on which the protagonist played in high school -- mythical in more than one way, since Montana high school athletic triumphs rank right up there with the Odyssey and the Iliad. These fellows have fanned out into combat locations that make a nice check-list of kinds of war. One by one they are picked off and the conceit is that a mysterious force called TPWP (Tepee-Weepy) is sending the journalist protagonist around the world to immortalize them as heroes, regardless of the facts. Doig has no personal experience of neither war or high school athletics so far as I know, but today’s veterans, approaching their centennial years, won’t care. They’ll fill in with their own knowledge.

For the first time, Doig includes a bit about Indians, which also come from imagination. Hill 57 was an actual place, now dispersed, the location of “Stay Away, Joe.” It housed mostly Metis and Cree people who didn’t fit into any reservation, notably the Gopher family. Today they are on the verge of achieving formal tribe status.

Francine Prose says, in her review of “Veronica,“There's a way in which each novel we read enters into a conversation with every other novel we've read. Even though they may have been written in different eras and places, they can talk to one another because they speak essentially the same language: They follow a narrative arc, they include a cast of characters who may or may not remind us of people we know, and they create a world that in some sense mirrors the world outside the novel.” Then she quickly steps away from her assertion. Surely this book is a nightmare that contains no one we know. I don’t think so. Not many Valier people know Parisian models or Manhattan temps -- maybe. But I suspect that many of the more beautiful girls (and there are a LOT of beautiful young women around here) have an internal life that could lead them into these predicaments. Anyway, AIDS does not confine itself to Manhattan.

In the end “Veronica” is about attachment rather than sex. As Gaitskill puts it, the story is about the pretty parlor maid who flirts with the caddish nobleman in the upstairs household, in order to come up in the world, when her real longing is for Mrs. Bridges (who is the Veronica character -- Veronica is not a devil in Prada) and the comfort she provides. The Mrs. Bridges/Veronicas in this town are what make it work.

Gaitskill has to work hard to make this case and she often inserts dream-equivalents to ponder, as though the reader were a gypsy telling fortunes or a psychoanalyst looking for patterns. We do that a lot these days. Every era has its puzzles and labyrinths: it’s only the minotaur consuming the young while living at the center that is different from one time to another. It’s oddly reassuring to read that a funny-looking but intelligent and effective woman can have a full-spectrum intimate relationship, even at the unimaginably old age of forty! Of course, Veronica has a lot more cats than I do and I’m nearly seventy. And she has TWO relationships if you count Alison, the protagonist.

Both of these books are works of imagination. They will appeal to radically different readers. It’s not surprising that Gaitskill is the one nominated for a National Book Award, since the award is Manhattan-based and Manhattan thinks that Doig is a “regional” writer of local interest only. They’re wrong. Only now do they realize -- because of money -- they’re not the pivot but the pit. The people who are doorkeepers for Montana lit are just as insistent at excluding what they don’t say is “unregional.” What I really enjoy is reading BOTH, because the point of reading can be not just confirming one’s opinions but also seeing through someone else’s eyes. Even Mrs. Bridges has a point of view though she’s confined to belowstairs.


Diggitt said...

Great comment by Francine Prose; I'm sorry she steps away from it.

I just now realized that the truth she speaks is exactly why I just hated Sue Miller's The Good Mother. When the book was published, I had a heated discussion with a feminist professor friend, who was convinced that the plot demonstrated the oppressiveness of patriarchy.

I objected to the plot's being loaded with situation after situation in which the heroine got herself in deeper and deeper. As I read, I kept thinking, Why are you so dumb? The heroine's choices just lacked credibility, and she winds up losing custody of her young daughter to her ex. I could not relate to the plot -- or find any eternal truths in it -- because it was so contrived. I don't consider myself any exemplar of good sense, either; this heroine was an idiot.

I find Gaitskill's writing chilling because her characters are real. We might wish they weren't, but they are. If we're honest with ourselves, as we go back and forth between Gaitskill's story and what we ourselves have known, we find that she's telling the truth.

Chas S. Clifton said...

That would be Robert Gopher (Robert?), right, and his family outside Great Falls?

lancemfoster said...

The Doorkeepers of both Manhattan and Montana are plain old Tards.

Life is bigger than that.