by Ann Beattie
Random House, 247 pp., $16.95
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 …