Ann Beattie’s reputation as the cool portraitist of an affluent, disaffected group of baby boomers is by now so well established that barely anyone challenges it, except Ann Beattie. A decade ago Joyce Maynard asked her whether she “agreed that her writing chronicled, perhaps for the first time, a particular countercultural world.” Beattie replied, “I’ve gotten very hostile to that response to my work.” Yet the stories and novels she has steadily produced since then have continued to invite such readings. In her characteristically deadpan prose crowded with up-to-date details, she has kept up with her familiar cast of laid-back characters who came of age in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Just that talent for disjointed documentary has obscured Beattie’s aspiration to do more than mirror the malaise of a generation of Americans distinguished by their inability to connect—with themselves, with each other, with work, even with pleasure. With characters so convincingly lacking in spirit, it has been natural to assume that her real subject is the spirit of the time: she has been our expert at taking the weak pulse of the anticlimactic Seventies and the soulless Eighties.
Picturing Will, Beattie’s fourth novel, set mostly in 1989, looks at once like a new installment of her generational chronicle. In their late thirties and early forties, all of the four main adult characters are veterans of post-1960s diffidence. At a muddled moment in her life, Jody literally stumbled into marriage to Wayne, good-looking, rootless, and restless (the heel of her shoe snapped, he paused to help, etc.). After an unplanned baby was born, Wayne disappeared, leaving Jody to fend for herself and the child. She rose to the challenge, tending the baby and supporting herself as a wedding photographer in Charlottesville while taking other pictures on her own.
As the novel opens Jody is once again at an indecisive point in her life: she is vacillating about committing herself to Mel, who manages a New York art gallery and is devoted to her, to her artistic talent, and to her son, Will, now five years old. Though Mel has a guiding purpose, plotting to win Jody as a wife and to get his boss to stage her debut as a serious photographer, he too has been at loose ends. He dropped out of business school and started a novel, which he never finished. (Mel’s literary ambition now takes the form of journal entries about the dilemmas of child rearing, which are inserted in italics throughout the book.)
Meanwhile, Wayne, the quintessential drifter, has ended up in Florida working for a lawn and landscaping service, and is already feeling hemmed in by his fourth wife, Corky, a straightforward, lower-middle-class woman eager to have a baby. At the center stands Will, both at the mercy of the grown-ups and an innocently clear-eyed judge of them. Though children are comparatively rare in Beattie’s world of untethered adults, when they appear they often play a version …