As perhaps befits a literary high priestess of the Baby Boomers’ generation, Ann Beattie is a writer who insists on Having It All—at least in the tricky matter of an author’s relationship with her characters. In both her stories and her novels, Beattie remains aloof from her fumbling spouses and lovers and siblings, those benumbed graduates of Sixties rebellion and Seventies alienation; but she also tries to get inside their somewhat silly heads—even if not for very long or very deeply. She seems to smile at pratfalls of behavior while fretting over missed connections, to laugh at nostalgia while being nostalgic, to mock the latest fashion while also somehow delighting in the fashionable. She wants to be ironic and clinical and worldly-wise—if never “judgmental.” But Beattie is after pathos, too, not to mention a serious theme; and everything is meant to fall into place—sometimes within one story or chapter, even within one page or paragraph—without any real loss of narrative coolness or authorial ambivalence.
Is Beattie asking for too much? Probably. But so are the self-conscious yuppies who wobble or drift through her stories and novels. Thus, the fidgety Beattie manner—everything grabbed at, nothing ever quite connecting—has been known to take on metaphorical weight, thematic coloration; occasionally Beattie’s own detachment and ambivalence can even seem to be an eloquent mirroring of those passive, equivocal skirmishes among the characters.
Indeed, at her best (in many of the stories in Secrets and Surprises, here and there throughout Chilly Scenes of Winter), Beattie—not unlike the more cerebral Joan Didion—constructs an unsettling, obliquely affecting sort of prose pointillism: an appropriate style for a generation that grew up taking television, with its quick changes of mood and imagery, for granted. Short, flat, edgy sentences accumulate ironic details. In “Distant Music” the two lovers
both believed in flying saucers and health food. They shared a hatred of laundromats, guilt about not sending presents to relatives on birthdays and at Christmas, and a dog—part Weimaraner, part German shepherd—named Sam.
There are, intermingled, observation and insight, fleeting introspection and wry reportage (splintered dialogue in the foreground, car-radio catch phrases in the background). Beattie leads us from viewpoint to viewpoint, implicitly inviting us to share her ironic, shifting sensibility; and we do just that—connecting the dots, feeling the shimmer of ambivalence between them—as long as Beattie’s range of attitudes remains plausible, seductive, gently modulated. Even when the overall effect of Beattie’s fiction is amorphous or merely depressing, as in Falling in Place or much of The Burning House, one can find moments to savor—quirky, bleakly humorous—within the wide yet muted spectrum of tones generated by her restless, slippery approach to character.
In Love Always, however, Beattie has taken on more than she can handle. She still adopts a variety of authorial voices, remaining loose and noncommittal, mixing Angst with grace-note amusement. But here, while clinging to remnants of her graver, more delicate and life-sized tragicomedy, Beattie sets out to be a satirist-farceur as well—even if that aim results in unpleasant clashes of mood and tone, more crazy quilt than pointillism.
Take, for example, the novel’s brief opening chapter—set on June 30, 1984, the day of the third annual party for the city-bred, Vermont-based staff of Country Daze, a chic humor magazine founded by handsome entrepreneur Hildon (apparently so macho and hip that he has no first name). The hostess is Hildon’s wife, Maureen, whom Beattie immediately sets up as a cartoonlike simp: we’re invited to laugh at Maureen’s complacent pleasure in the giving of “perfect” parties (with inane motifs), at her discomfiture in the presence of Country Daze writer Lucy Spenser (Hildon’s longtime, off-and-on lover), at her limited erudition. (Silently fuming at Lucy’s blithe-spirit manner, Maureen thinks: “She acted a little like that woman, whatever her name was, whom the Great Gatsby had been in love with.”) Some readers will resist the faint smugness of the caricature, of course. But those who cheerfully go along with Beattie as a disdainful satirist will be jolted by an abrupt shift in the chapter’s final lines—as Maureen recalls herself at last year’s Country Daze fete: “She had worn a toga. She had served pita bread and hummus. It had rained on the Fourth of July. Two days later she had been on the phone, ordering a set of glasses from the Horchow collection, when she suddenly felt blood soaking her pants, and miscarried, without having known she was pregnant.”
What is Beattie after here? Are we meant to giggle scornfully at Maureen, then to gag on the laughter when Beattie suddenly switches gears? Apparently so—because most of the characters in Love Always receive much the same having-it-both-ways treatment: an ill-prepared lurch from giddy sendup to maudlin, undeveloped psychological revelation. Slick, womanizing publisher Hildon, complete with cowboy fetish, may be both a joker and a joke—but there’s also a moment (again in a chapter’s final paragraph) when he “started to laugh. He needed to choke back a terrible sadness that had started to overwhelm him.” Likewise, glib, self-pitying, cocaine-snorting Lucy (a k a Cindi Coeur, satirical lonely-hearts columnist for Country Daze) will eventually show her less flighty side, turning to thoughts of her father’s long-ago, traumatic desertion. And Lucy’s vapid, emotionally stunted niece Nicole, the very model of a modern major TV star (at age fourteen), ultimately emerges as a love-needy orphan—when the book in its closing chapters tumbles from comedy into melodrama and sentimentality.
Pathos as punch line: that, unfortunately, is Beattie’s favored stratagem in this centerless, disjointed novel—which is uncharacteristically heavy-handed in both its comic and poignant extremes. (Even the title—a reference, one learns, to Lucy’s callous letters from an unfaithful ex-lover—is a lumbering irony.) True, the jump-cuts from mockery to insight to sentiment may be intended as a demonstration of Beattie’s belief in human nature’s many-sidedness. “Nobody is really a hero or a heroine; they’re all confused and pulled in different directions.” So says Lucy of Nicole’s soap-opera script. So says Beattie, it seems, about her company of pagliacci, clowns and jokers and poseurs who are almost always revealed to be crying on the inside. (In later chapters the underscoring of this theme—“Nobody is any one way,” counsels a conveniently aphoristic waitress—will become increasingly emphatic.)
But with nearly a dozen principal players wandering through a hectic yet static plot, Beattie’s skittish narration never settles down long enough to bring any of them into rounded focus; the attempt to invest them with emotional heft registers only as a mawkish gimmick. (Jay McInerney’s overpraised first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, employed a similarly mechanical device.) Meanwhile, the comic potential in these wayward personalities remains diffused, largely unexploited: as if to cancel out her few bold squiggles of burlesque, Beattie is constantly hedging and justifying, distancing and blurring, declining to give her characters coherent identities—or to adopt one of her own.
Such ambivalence may not be enough to alienate those readers who come to Love Always with a preexisting faith in Beattie-as-soulmate, as trend spotter and generational guide. Others, however, will find themselves distrusting Beattie-as-narrator, especially since the uncoordinated attempts at social satire fare only slightly better than the manipulations of character. Television, thanks to the summer-hiatus visit of Lucy’s soap-star niece, becomes an even easier target than usual: familiar, rather effortful fun is made of TV-obsessed yokels, the Hollywood publicity machine, and the soap star’s LA-provincial agent “Piggy” Proctor—who phones “to finalize plans for Nicole’s dangling from the rope of a helicopter with Bobby Blue over the beach at Malibu on behalf of a campaign to raise money for children afflicted with sleep apnea.” Send-ups of hack artists and writers—who arrive to capitalize as best they can on the craze for Nicole’s soap opera—offer further examples of the hyperbolic yet uninspired lampoon. (A would-be F. Scott Fitzgerald has recently completed a novel called Buzz, “about people at a fashionable resort in Southampton, as seen from the perspective of a mosquito.”) Still more lamely, Hildon’s wife, Maureen, reappears as part of a surprisingly dated feminist self-help cult: “Masculine tumescence has caused mind-boggling tragedy,” intones her comic-strip guru. “Pectoral power, not penis envy.”
Throughout, in fact, Beattie seems uneasy as a cartoonist, while her proven talents—as a fine-tuner of casual dialogue, an observer of post-Sixties mores, and a collector of late-twentieth-century artifacts—are subverted by the distracting clamor all around, by the erosion of the reader’s confidence in an overextended, capricious narrator. Few readers, certainly, will be inclined to look for—or be much affected by—the starker, quieter motifs that Beattie (in yet another mode) has rather elegantly laced through this inelegant novel. On its busy surface Love Always would appear to be most seriously concerned with the ironic dynamics of loveless love and hollow ambitions. But there’s also, barely discernible amid the narrative chaos, a potentially powerful, largely squandered counter-theme: Maureen’s remembered miscarriage is the first in a series of references, throughout the book, to childless women (including characters on Nicole’s soap) and orphaned children (including Elvis Presley’s daughter)—perhaps suggesting that the only love with an “always” guarantee is the link between parent and child. (When Nicole’s mother is accidentally killed in California, the orphan receives a condolence letter from her agent’s mother, who recalls the untimely death of her mother: “We are always our mother’s children, whether or not our dear mothers are with us in fact, or but in memory.”)
Finally, then, this hard-working jumble of comic/portentous gestures becomes—like most of the anecdotes Lucy Spenser knows—just “another story that made things tenuous and a bit ironic,” enervating and thin. Beattie’s technical limitations as a novelist (her inert, summarizing style has never transferred well to full-length fiction) are partly to blame, exacerbated by the sheer busyness of her Vermont/Hollywood variations on La Ronde. Above all, however, Love Always fails because Beattie recoils from the liberating embrace that gives any heightened comedy its energy and conviction. Villain or fool, Tartuffe or Falstaff, Roth’s Mrs. Portnoy, John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius Reilly, or (on a more modest level) the eccentric Tula Springs denizens of the young novelist James Wilcox (Modern Baptists, North Gladiola)—comic characters must on some level be surrendered to, even celebrated, not just scrutinized and explained. In Love Always only Nicole’s carnage-loving dog, St. Francis, “a monster, pure and simple,” is allowed that kind of zestful autonomy. With her two-legged characters Beattie never lets go, never gives in; she’s alternately intrusive and standoffish, Having It All by way of authorial distance and safety but missing nearly every opportunity for persuasive, exhilarating human comedy.