Period Fiction

Falling in Place

by Ann Beattie
Random House, 342 pp., $10.95

The Passion Artist

by John Hawkes
Harper & Row, 185 pp., $9.95

Before us are three novels—one of them crypto-Victorian, one old-fashionedly Modern, and the third so relentlessly up-to-date that it can be read as a fictional appendix to The Culture of Narcissism. Two of the books are stylistically ambitious; the third pretends not to be, but is sufficiently deft in its own dead-pan way. Let’s begin with the latter.

Falling in Place is the second novel by Ann Beattie, who, primarily through her stories in The New Yorker and elsewhere, has established herself as a sort of cultural anthropologist specializing in the recently young. More specifically, she has become perhaps our most authoritative translator-transcriber of the speech-patterns, nonverbal communications, rituals, and tribal customs of those members (white, largely middle-class) of a generation who came of age around 1970—who attended or dropped out of college, smoked dope, missed connections, lived communally, and drifted in and out of relationships with a minimum of self-recognized affect or commitment. In her new novel she extends her age-range upward to forty and downward to ten and below; she even briefly includes a rich, alcoholic grandmother for good measure.

The characters fall into certain groupings which are casually linked. The most important is an affluent, upper-middle-class family who live in Connecticut within commuting distance of New York. Its members are John Knapp, a Princeton graduate now on the brink of middle age who makes a good living in advertising; his embittered, sarcastic wife Louise, from whom he is semi-separated; their teenage daughter Mary, who has flunked English and must as a consequence go to summer school; their neurotically fat ten-year-old son John Joel, who spends much of his time in a tree; and their small son Brandt, whom we scarcely see. Because of the semi-separation, which developed in an unplanned way, John and Brandt live with John’s mother in Rye during the week and join the rest of the family only on weekends.

The second grouping consists of unmarried people still in their twenties. These include Cynthia, a PhD candidate at Yale who resentfully teaches the summer-school English course that Mary Knapp resentfully attends; Cynthia’s boyfriend Peter Spangle, who has run through most of his inherited money and sets out for Spain soon after the novel begins; Spangle’s ex-girlfriend Nina, who is currently John Knapp’s mistress in New York; Spangle’s friend Bobby, a hyperactive poet who shows up at Cynthia’s apartment looking for Spangle; and a half-crazy magician who meets Cynthia in a New Haven laundromat and falls in love with her.

Then there are the minor characters: a spaced-out drug supplier who provides Nina with plenty of marijuana; a disturbed boy of twelve named Parker who commutes to New York to see his shrink and is given to such practical jokes as pricking a pin-hole in his mother’s diaphragm; a suburban feminist, Tiffy, who involves herself more and more with Louise Knapp; and Angela, a sexy fifteen-year-old who is Mary Knapp’s tyrannical best friend.

The above dramatis personae (I apologize for its length) goes a…

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