Ann Beattie published her first story in The New Yorker, “A Platonic Relationship”—about a woman who has left her husband in search of “a better world” only to discover that she is afraid of sleeping alone—on April 8, 1974, at the age of twenty-six. The story was praised on its acceptance by the magazine’s fiction editor, Roger Angell, for its extraordinary “sparsity.” In it, Ellen has separated from her husband after taking night classes at the university. She finds a roommate, Sam, a passive type to whom she grows more and more attached—if only platonically—until Sam abruptly informs Ellen that he is leaving to “see the country.” Ellen subsequently gets back together with her husband, but this development is described so tersely you could almost miss it; their reunion seems to make little emotional difference to her.
At the story’s close, while driving to the grocery store with her husband, she seems to imagine herself riding off on a motorcycle with Sam. The ending feels almost arbitrary and anti- climactic—and yet somehow the story’s refusal to find a tidy conclusion was a source of its peculiar power. It is up to us to infer that Ellen craves independence but doesn’t know how to live without a man.
Over the next two years alone, Beattie published eight stories in the magazine—a remarkable accomplishment for a fiction writer so young, since The New Yorker, then as now, was perhaps the most sought-after home for short fiction. Beattie’s pieces didn’t resemble most other New Yorker stories. They avoided dramatic confrontations and extended examination of their characters’ inner lives. They had almost no imagery and rarely used elegant metaphors; they were not propelled by event, but by omission and jump cuts. Little “happened” in a traditional sense. In “Fancy Flights,” a man separates from his wife and smokes a lot of hash while house-sitting. In “Snakes’ Shoes,” four characters have a conversation on a rock about snakes. But in their understated way the stories captured fleeting moments of loss. When Beattie first met John Updike, he told her, “You figured out how to write an entirely different kind of story.”
By the time Beattie published her first books, Distortions (a short story collection) and Chilly Scenes of Winter (a novel), in 1976, she had earned a reputation as a virtuosic chronicler of the zeitgeist—an unparalleled portraitist of disaffected upper-middle-class youth coming of age in the 1970s. She was heralded for her new, terse, emotionally cool style. Her deft ironies powerfully captured the skeptical mood of her peers, leading critics to talk of a “Beattie Generation.” By 1980, Beattie was one of the few working writers—Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Joan Didion also come to mind—recognizable to strangers on the street.
Today, even though she has continued to write and publish steadily—since 1976, she…
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